Fear and courage: Half Remembered Fears

As we gather today, seeking meaning and connection
Joy and possibility
We long to move into a bright new day
And yet, we can be held back by the burdens we carry
Wounds and fears we may have brought with us over many years
We carry them - often unaware - through all our days
By the light of this flame, may we turn our eyes courageously toward what restrains us - toward the scars that keep us from blossoming fully
When we can see clearly, we can begin to heal and to grow into our own power and wholeness



Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: 
All mimsy were the borogoves, 
      And the mome raths outgrabe. 
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son! 
      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! 
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
      The frumious Bandersnatch!” 
He took his vorpal sword in hand; 
      Long time the manxome foe he sought— 
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
      And stood awhile in thought. 
And, as in uffish thought he stood, 
      The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, 
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, 
      And burbled as it came! 
One, two! One, two! And through and through
      The vorpal blade went snicker-snack! 
He left it dead, and with its head
      He went galumphing back. 
“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? 
      Come to my arms, my beamish boy! 
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” 
      He chortled in his joy. 
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: 
All mimsy were the borogoves, 
      And the mome raths outgrabe.


Bedtime Story, by Lisel Mueller

The moon lies on the river
like a drop of oil.
The children come to the banks to be healed
of their wounds and bruises.
The fathers who gave them their wounds and bruises
come to be healed of their rage.
The mothers grow lovely; their faces soften,
the birds in their throats awake.
They all stand hand in hand
and the trees around them,
forever on the verge
of becoming one of them,
stop shuddering and speak their first word.
But that is not the beginning.
It is the end of the story,
and before we come to the end,
the mothers and fathers and children
must find their way to the river,
separately, with no one to guide them.
That is the long, pitiless part,
and it will scare you.


As you can imagine, since I volunteered to come up here and speak today, the theme of fear and courage holds a lot of significance for me. Fears, both large and small, can present themselves in innumerable ways and it can be difficult to not only find the courage to fight back against those fears, but to even identify when you’re acting out of fear. I have lived most of my life in fear. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of being too different from my peers, fear of blending into the crowd, fear of spiders! But mostly, I have been driven by my fear of intimacy. That fear has been with me since childhood and it is the most difficult thing I have ever had to admit to myself.
The problem with fears that come from events in your childhood is that, often, we feel the need to limit the impact that those events have on who we’ve become as adults. These events then are simple things: they have a beginning, a middle and an end. They become a story we tell ourselves, and perhaps others, at the end of which we say, ‘But I’m fine now, it’s all in the past.’ This is partly because these distant events are hazy, muddled through the retelling of them by others so that we cannot distinguish between a memory and what we have simply been told, or for those events that have not been shared they simply fade with age as the pains are less sharp, the wounds less apparent. However, I would argue, at least in my case, that my experiences helped form a part of my core motivations, influencing deeply how I was able, or unable, to connect with the world around me. It was only when I was brave enough to pick myself apart that I found that I had even been afraid in the first place. 
Today, I want to briefly share with you my two stories, the easy one, with its tidy storybook ending, and my more personal one, which isn’t so linear or prescriptive.
My parents met while my mother was on holiday in Egypt, after spending the previous three months volunteering at a hospital in Uganda. They spent two weeks together before she flew back to the US to begin her residency to become a surgeon. My father followed her, flowers in hand, and proposed. They knew each other for just three months before they were married. My mother’s father boycotted the wedding.
I was born two years later, but their marriage was already fraying. When I was two years old my mother filed for divorce and moved the two of us a thousand miles away from my father to be closer to her family. In my father’s mind she was taking me from him, enforcing her will unfairly, even though she had agreed to shared custody. So, as the divorce proceedings continued, and my father came to take me for his allotted two weeks just before my third birthday, instead of returning to NY where he had been living, he took me to Cairo without telling my mother.
At that time there were no arrangements for extradition, and under Egyptian law what he had done was not abduction, but rather his right as the father. Men own their children and wives in Egypt. My mother came to visit several, pleaded for him to return me to the US, but instead he took a job in Dubai and soon told her that if she ever wanted to see me again she would have to move to Dubai as well and live again as his wife.
My mother gave up her practice, her home and her freedom to be with me, but she did not give up hope. For over two years she planned and waited and secreted away little bits of money as she could until the moment came that we could escape. 
It was August, the summer before my sixth birthday and three years after the initial abduction, when her chance finally came. We took our first family vacation to a country outside of the Middle East where children were able to travel without the father present. We landed in Moscow, and within hours, as my father laid down for a nap after the flight, we walked out of the hotel with just the clothes on our back and into a car of a friend of a friend who took us straight back to the airport, where we finally flew home to the US.
Yet another friend of a friend, set us up with a new life, new names, new social security numbers and a home far from anyone we previously knew. We went underground, initially not even telling my mother’s family where we lived in case my father went looking for us. Then life returned to a standard rhythm. The excitement was over, we were free and there was nothing to fear. The end. 
I do not remember my father taking me. Instead, I remember Christmas in a strange house, my Muslim grandmother trying to make me feel at home by buying me a Barbie, but everything seems to be viewed through a sepia filter, like an old photograph. Next we are in Dubai, and I’m in the second bedroom, where my mother has stayed when she came to see me. I am crying into the clothes she has left behind. 
I have many memories of my time in Egypt and Dubai, of time with friends and my family, of an amusement park whose theme appeared to revolve around inordinately large pieces of fruit. Common, childhood memories. I don’t remember my parents arguing or being afraid, but crucially, I remember Russia. I didn’t attribute any particular importance to this day at the time, but I have a clear memory of leaving the hotel, the homeless woman outside, and the white jeep that would take us away to a now unfamiliar country and a family I didn’t know. 
I initially didn’t know how to process our move and new identity. I was torn between missing my father and knowing that I should be angry with him, that he had done something very wrong. In my cramped, block letters, I wrote a letter to him when we first moved to New Hampshire and begged my mom to send it to him. 
I realized, even as a child, that my father had done something very wrong, and deeply hurt my mother and myself. I saw a child psychologist for a time and, upon prompting, expressed the anger that I felt she and my mother both expected me to feel towards my father. I smacked and pushed and yelled at a ridiculous blow-up bobble doll, almost as tall as myself. The problem was that after that initial round of therapy my mother couldn’t talk to me about what had happened to us. For her, too, she wanted the end to be the end.
For years after we returned to the US I remained afraid that I would wake up one day and my mother would be gone again. There were a few missteps at first, where I panicked at being left alone in the car for half an hour, or if my mother stepped out for a minute and I didn’t hear her go. Up until I was eight years old I could not fall asleep most nights without my mother there beside me. It got so bad she tried to bribe me with a kitten to just let her get some sleep. Friendly tip for the parents in the room, bribing a child with a pet is setting a dangerous precedent. We ended up with a veritable zoo in our house by the time I was a teenager.
As I got older the expression of this fear shifted. I become less focused on losing my mother, and more and more unable to let anyone else in. I stopped making friends. In my first year of university I distinctly recall being shocked when another girl in my class casually referred to me as her friend as I drove her to pick up her sister from the airport. I had no concept by that point where acquaintance ended and friendship began. 
Into my early twenties, no matter where I was or what job I was doing, I felt as though at a certain point I would wear out my welcome. Every job I had or city I lived in had an expiration date. In my mind I had already decided that I would not make friends, would not settle down and create a home. Inevitably, I ended up at a job and in a relationship with someone who fed into these insecurities. I felt useless, hopeless and very alone.
It was only once I decided that I had had enough, that I was worth more than this low opinion of myself that I was able to identify what was really driving me away from family and friends. It was then that I promised to myself that I would not fall into yet another self-fulfilling prophecy of isolation. I sought counseling to learn to identify the ways in which I made myself unhappy, how I undermined my ability to connect with others and what I could do to change that. Bit by bit I challenged all the assumptions I had made about myself and the world around me, that nobody understood me, that I was unlikable, that I in turn didn’t like any of my peers, and the actions I took to make sure no one disproved me. These were defense mechanisms, driven by my fear. I had lived for years imprisoned by the limitations I put upon myself. 
Courage, for me, is the acknowledgement of the fear, and working every day to not let them dictate your life. I didn’t wake up one morning and suddenly have a whole new life. It took years of slow steps and self reflection and I still find myself acting out of fear at times, but now I know its there. I believe the true test of courage comes from the everyday, and it is a courage we all have inside us, whether it be for the lingering fears from our past like mine, or from a fresh hurt that is much more acute. There is no need for any of us to feel like we are powerless.