“Fear is the mind-killer.” — Dune
I wrestle with fear a great deal. It’s not the kind of fear I had when I was younger; those were more elemental fears. I don’t fear death much anymore, except on a reptile-brain level. I don’t fear madness, but while I wouldn’t say I’ve won any battles with it, I’ve learned to live without falling prey to it. I don’t fear getting old. I don’t fear what strangers will say about me if they find out I’m a Pagan, a Lokean, a nun, and a god-spouse. I acknowledge that some of this is built on privilege. I don’t have to fear being beaten merely for being transgendered, or racially profiled because I’m African-American, as I am neither. I don’t have to fear warlords sweeping down to massacre everyone in town before taking our food and supplies…at least, not at this point in history. But everybody has fears, some of which are well-founded, and some of which aren’t.
I fear becoming infirm and unable to be independent. I am afraid to trust people, except for those I’ve known for many years. I fear hornets and wasps to an annoyingly silly degree. I fear disappointing my gods and letting down the people who ask me to help them understand the Holy Ones. It was for this last reason that I told myself for many months that I was misguided concerning a necessary change. I convinced myself that wishful thinking and the fear of accepting responsibility (even though I had already accepted that responsibility for several year prior) were the reasons that I felt…reluctant, let’s say, to take the usual actions that came with that responsibility.
But then, as happens often to me, I had an omen. I was thinking on the matter, and looking at one of the blogs I read on a semi-regular basis, and as I clicked through the link, the newest post on that blog was called “Knowing When to Walk Away.” I knew, then, that it hadn’t just been my imagination, and that it was time.
I went to the goddess who held my oath and spoke with Her about being released from it. She agreed that it was time, and added that while She thought I could have done a better job in some respects, She wasn’t displeased with what I had done. That set my mind at ease, as She is not a person I would want to be angry at me (again), and also someone who doesn’t mince words. Just to be sure I really wasn’t deluding myself (which had more to do with my lack of faith in myself than my trust in Her — which She did chide me about, a little), I did a reading after this exchange, and the oracle rather unambiguously affirmed the message, and was generally positive.
So I wrote a letter to those concerned, informing them that I was stepping down as gydja of Iron Wood Kindred after five years, having been one of the people who founded it. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be, and I felt silly for being afraid, especially when my kindred-mates had nothing but kind and complimentary words to say about me and my service. I’d often felt like the worst of priestesses and that I was significantly lacking in several respects, but I was surprised to learn that others didn’t feel that way — or if they did, they didn’t consider it worth mentioning. A couple of people even told me privately that, regardless of whether or not I was in charge of the kindred, they would still consider me as a personal gydja, if that makes any sense. I was very touched by this, and felt the weight of responsibility settle on me yet again. But it felt far more comfortable this time. I realized then how foolish I’d been to be afraid of what would be said by my gods and my friends, without having investigated the truth for myself.
Fear is often built on this kind of illusion, on the misguided idea that things are or could become worse than they will ever realistically be. Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of real dangers and possibilities in the world, of which it makes sense to be wary. If you stand to lose your home, your livelihood, your freedom, your loved ones, or your life, things are different and often, quite consequential. What seems simple for people without those constraints might carry worrying implications for those who have them. I’m not talking about that kind of realistic fear, however. I’m talking about something else entirely: the fear of What Will The Neighbors (Or The People On My Web Forum) Say? It’s not necessarily limited to neighbors or Internet acquaintances, but I think you know what I mean.
I have heard people, with no child custody or job status or personal safety issues to think about, make labyrinthine arguments about why they cannot be honest with others about how, in whatever way, they are not like the average bear. They are afraid that people will say mean things to and about them. How often are these kinds of fears based on reality, and how often do we let them keep us from doing what is right, or even just what we want? Are you chained to your fear, like the people commonly shown in the Devil card from the Tarot? Honestly, if this thing you fear (having people say bad things about you) came to pass tomorrow, yeah, life would probably suck for a while…but would you still give a damn about it all a year from now? Five years from now? Chances are, you wouldn’t. So how it is justifiable to let that fear dictate your actions?
This can be especially hard for younger people to grasp, in part because they are more vulnerable than adults, which is why we have things like the many, many “It Gets Better” videos aimed at LBGT youth, encouraging them to be strong and endure teasing and harassment until they can break free of it. As someone who was taunted a lot as a kid, for various reasons, I can say that it is worth sticking out the bullshit heaped on you by other kids. Unfortunately, once you leave high school, people don’t stop being narrow-minded dickheads who try to judge you for being who you are. What actually happens is that you get better — at dealing with their crap. (That being said, if you are actually in physical danger from bullies, please, please seek help from anybody who will listen. Sticks and stones and so forth.)
I’m not just mouthing empty words here, or telling people to grow a spine when I myself haven’t done it. I have some experience in this. As a child, I was harassed when some of the kids at my school found out that I’m not entirely white, and decided that being half-Thai was something mockable. As an adult, I’ve had evangelists on my doorstep shriek invectives at me or pester me when I came out of the bookstore where I used to get my copies of Green Egg and Circle Network News. I’ve had carloads of assholes yell insults at me as I walked down the sidewalk, or scream at me and throw beer bottles from the safety of their darkened frat house windows. I’ve had would-be defenders of the Folkway send me death threats. I’ve had strangers say unkind things online about my appearance, my religion, my writing, and my perceived right to exist. If rumor is to be believed, I’ve even had people set up nithstangs against my household and pray to the gods to strike me and my friends down for worshiping the “wrong” gods, all of this based partly on hearsay from other people. (Clearly, neither of these things has worked, as we are not living in ruin or all dead of a lightning strike.) Some busybodies in our town have even spread (mostly hilarious) rumors about my housemates, with the result that if I mention I where I live to certain people, I’ll know right away if they’re among the gossips. They’ll get that wary look people have when they are in the presence of someone they have “heard things” about, and usually make some excuse to get away from me as soon as possible.
But you know what? Fuck their inability to mind their own business. That goes for the people who you’re afraid will say rude, untrue, or just plain shitty things about you, too.
The truth is, an awful lot of the time, negative reactions from others are rooted in their own fear of outsiders, of things that are beyond their control, of having their beliefs challenged. In giving in, sitting down, and shutting up out of fear of what will be said of us, we not only let ourselves be ruled by our own fear, but also by those of other people. If this goes on unchallenged for long enough, it can even lead to terrible, inhuman things, like witch-burnings, forced female circumcision, or groups of people being shoved into gas chambers to die.
Things need not escalate to that level to have a negative impact, however. Nor does the disapprobation necessarily come from strangers or enemies.The fear about what other people will think or say — whether it’s our detractors or, as was in my case, our friends and kin — doesn’t do us or anybody else any favors. They make us narrower, less than what we truly are. They close the door to possibility and deny us the room to grow and explore. They prevent other people from seeing that there is more than one way to live, and that theirs isn’t necessarily the right or only way. And while having a certain amount of respect for things like wearing one’s seat belt, not pissing off the judge handling your case, and using condoms and dental dams, is all responsible and wise behavior, being afraid of the shadows that exist in only our minds is not. Do you really know the difference between the two?
It can be hard when it’s your family, your partner(s), your kids, your friends, your co-workers — people you see every day, some of whom you may love dearly — whose opinions and commentary you dread. But it’s even more important that you get over that fear, because refusing to act because of it is just dishonest. It’s like saying that you don’t trust them enough to show them who you really are and what you really think. Fear of what each other’s reactions might be only divides people, even those who might love each other very much.
It’s true that with loved ones, sometimes it is as bad as you fear it will be — coming out as queer and/or Pagan, for instance, can be quite as traumatic as making an announcement that you’ve been arrested for using inappropriate charms on a goat. Even when you expect the worst, people can still surprise you. When I finally told my parents, after several years of concealing the truth, what turn my life had taken when Loki entered it, and why I had done some of the things I’d done, they were supportive and accepting. My mother asked why I hadn’t just told her what was going on, and added that she’d always felt there was something different about me. My dad merely remarked that he is from a traditional culture and knows about people being spirit-touched, and the entire matter was settled with a brief discussion and a phone call, contrary to the dramatic debacle I’d imagined, which always ended with me being carted away to the bin. If you really love the people who are most important to you, you might consider that overcoming your fear of what they will say is an act of proving your love for them…even if they do not appreciate it. You’ll know, and so will your gods.
I’m not trying to sound judgmental here, or imply that people ought to go around saying things just to upset others (I know, how un-Lokean, right?) Nor am I denying that being afraid of potential repercussions is always foolish; fear is also what keeps people alive, in many cases. I’m only saying that, even after years of self-reflection, even after becoming a dedicated nun living in increasing isolation for the last several years, there are still things I’m afraid of — often unreasonably. Occasionally, what people will think or say about me is one of them. And it’s usually ridiculous for me or anybody else to be worried about that. Fear of the opinions of others usually finds a way to stir up discord, even if you don’t intend it to and never speak openly of it. It is entirely useless, and usually harmful to someone — almost always to yourself. (And don’t even get me started on gossip. I have no respect for people who indulge in that bullshit or try to claim that it helps form healthy communities by letting others know who to avoid. It doesn’t. It’s a cowardly device used by those who are too gutless to directly confront the people they dislike.)
Fear really is the mind-killer, as well as the frith-killer and the slayer of potential. That being said, I reserve the right to ask my housemates to dispose of hornets that fly into the house, rather than taking care of it myself. You have to draw a line somewhere.