I used to be deathly afraid of vomit.
My fear is traced back to a puke-ariffic incident that took place when I was about seven years old. During a family vacation to the New Jersey shore, my mother took me and my brother to a local playground where I joyfully pumped myself high on a swing. Another boy, a 10-year-old stranger with a crew-cut, was in front of me spinning round and round on the merry-go-round. Despite his mother’s admonitions — “I think that’s enough!” and “You just ate. Stop it already!” — he continued.
You can guess what happened. He puked.
I remember the boy and I remember the peach palette of puke. Vividly. I could pick them both out in a crowd today. The memory is ingrained in my mind’s eye like a slow-motion movie death dance.
I spent the rest of the vacation feeling sick. Ask a Freudian and he’d probably say I’ve spent the rest of my life feeling sick.
He’d be a little bit right.
Ever since that cloudy afternoon at the Jersey shore, I’ve had a hard time with vomit. As a kid, after the merry-go-round incident, I would feel nauseous at the mention of a friend’s or classmate’s bellyache. I would slowly sneak far away from anyone who looked as if he was about to blow chunks.
As a grownup, I now carefully mind what my kids and I eat before a long road trip and certainly before they get on any amusement park ride that goes round and round.
But, as anyone who has ever thrown up knows (and certainly, as any parent knows), there’s only so much control one can have over vomit. So, I’m frightfully aware that no matter how much I monitor the junk food intakeת and no matter how many plastic bags I schlep along with me in the car, I still might have to catch some puke — and I don’t know when or where it will hit.
This causes me a lot of anxiety.
You might be laughing at me right now. Rolling your eyes at my absurdity. Scrolling through your iPhone for the number of a good therapist for me.
You think that’s crazy? Do you know that most days, I am more afraid of throw-up than I am of an attack on Iran?
In fact, most days I am more afraid of giving a work presentation, having an uncomfortable conversation with my mother, or asking my husband to put the kids to bed for the third night in a row, than I am of war in Israel.
“Lady, you’re in denial,” some of you are saying. “Don’t you know you live in Israel? In the Middle East? In a hotbed of power struggles, land struggles, and scary guys in sunglasses?”
“Or maybe she’s just bat-shit crazy,” say the rest of you.
I’d reply, “Honey, someone in denial doesn’t have an earthquake kit. Someone in denial isn’t able to quote statistics proving humanity was previously wiped out by multiple cosmic catastrophes. Someone in denial does not read World War Z. Someone in denial does not troll survivalist message boards and favorite the Homesteading page on Facebook.”
Yes, I’m frighteningly over-informed on cataclysm, apocalypse, and plagues. But I’m not in denial.
And, yes, in many ways I could be considered bat-shit crazy, but no more than the people who are reading and talking about war every day. No more than the people who are monitoring public opinion on Obama, on Romney, on Bibi, on Egypt, on Syria.
In some ways, I’m a little less bat-shit crazy than those folks, because I have recognized and acknowledged my fear. I’m not acting on fear while still denying that it exists. I’m not using fear manipulatively to sway people to behave in a manner that suits me and my fear.
Instead, I’m someone who has learned that the only way I can live a normal life is to acknowledge my fears (even publicly); work on managing my fear (through meditation, for instance); and then choose to act based on what I want from my life, not from what fear drives me to do. More important, as a parent, I have to be mindful to not spread my fear to my children. To not turn my fears into an inherited syndrome.
I’m still learning. Every. Single. Day.
I don’t have a lot of help. The media wants me to be afraid. Various government officials want me to be afraid. The entertainment industry wants me to be afraid. The more afraid I am, the more I do what I’m told and the less boats I rock. The more afraid I am, the more willingly and in parallel I walk with the herd. The more afraid I am, the more movie tickets I buy.
My fear works for everyone but me. (And when I say me, I also mean you.)
Seth Godin noted recently how people don’t quite understand the difference between event scale and fear scale. And if they did, they’d realize that fear has no scale.
Events scale. The magnitude of our impact and the impact of our decisions can vary wildly, depending on the stakes. You can decide which chocolate bar to buy or you can decide whether or not to take a job.
…The fight-or-flight reflex that speeds up your heart when you’re about to get a speeding ticket you don’t deserve isn’t very different than the chemical reaction in the brain of an accused (but innocent) murder suspect when the jury walks in.
Bigger stakes can’t lead to more fear.
And yet, on a day-to-day basis, what impacts our life the most is not actual events, or their scale, but our fear of them.
It’s not actual vomit or war impacting our day-to-day life. It’s the fear of vomit and war.
Until we figure out how to manage our fears, and to make choices based not on fears, but on the life we want to live, our lives will continue to be dominated by the slow motion movie death dance of fear, instead of being guided by visions of, and movements toward, the happy ending.