I promised Jack he could have a house-warming party as soon as we settled into my new-old house, and there was no holding back as soon as our belongings had been deposited there. Boys, of course, don't care if there are window treatments up, or that there are still unpacked boxes. Jack had been planning this spent-the-night party for months. His menu: Chick-Fil-A nuggets, Mr. Pibb, Fritos, Crunch bars and Shipley's donuts for breakfast. We blew up balloons and decorated the foyer and stairway. On Saturday evening three 10-year-old boys descended upon my home for the duration.
Jack had some activities planned as well. First, they would play with their respective Nintendo DSi's or other handheld electronics, then hold a few Nerf-gun battles. But once the boys arrived and explored my lovely two-story home, a new game was created: "Scarer."
One boy, "The Scarer," went upstairs and selected a hiding spot. After giving him time to conceal himself, the other three boys cautiously climbed the stairs and started poking around the darkened rooms. I'd hear whispering and false starts. "You go in ! No YOU!" And then, screams filled the house as all four boys came flying downstairs. Their shouts and laughter, interchangeable.
This ritual went on for about an hour, and then they began to quarrel about who would be The Scarer when the clock stuck midnight. They could not agree and their words became heated, so Mom (that would be me!) stepped in.
"I'LL BE THE SCARER!" I said, dramatically.
For an instant the boys looked stunned. Then, they cheered, and I threw my head back and effected my most convincing maniacal laugh—the kind the cartoon villain lets loose when he hatches a diabolical plot and thunder booms and lightning flashes in the background.
Since they had already discovered every good hiding place in the bedrooms upstairs, I decided to take an obvious position, one they would never expect. Jack's bedroom was dark, so I simply laid down on his bed and covered myself with a sheet. I lay there very still, trying not to laugh. When I could hear all four boys poking about the room, whispering, "She's not in here," I rose from my spot with a ghostly moan. The screams that ensued were classic, and as the boys retreated post-haste from the room, running for the light and safety of the downstairs, I sat on the bed laughing—not a maniacal laugh—a true, deep gratifying laugh of the kind inspired when someone does or says something truly funny. It was an odd juxtaposition of emotions.
Fear is funny like that. Is there a part of the human condition that wants to be scared? Scientists have shown that thrill-seekers gravitate towards horror movies, haunted houses, riding roller coasters and extreme sports (such as bungee jumping) because of the adrenaline rush caused by fear. Another theory is that the relief felt after being scared "to death" releases a hormone (phenyl enthyl-amine) that causes a sense of euphoria—similar to the feeling of being head of over heels in love.
In this way, experiencing the sensation of fear in a controlled, safe environment allows us to explore an emotion that can be debilitating in otherwise less-than-safe circumstances. But what is it that most of us fear most? It's not that a crazy chain-saw killer will pop out of the dark. Realistically, how often would that happen? No, the fears central to the human condition are the ones that we fabricate entirely in our minds. Our fears are varied and have a root in some perception or experience. We might be afraid of not having enough money to pay the bills, or fear getting sick, or we might fret that something bad will happen to our children. We fear rejection. We fear death. In essence, like the boys climbing the stairs to look for The Scarer, we fear the unknown. We fear the future.
Buddhist practice prescribes staying in the moment as an abatement to fear. Fear is an illusion, so why seek it out? Yes, we can recognize that "bad things" (also our perception) can and do happen everyday. But when we allow our fears of what might be take over our present condition, we are creating our own suffering.
Too often our fears separate us from the joys that are present within this moment, this day. We worry and fret over circumstances that are beyond our control. And yet, sitting with our fears can help us gain a better understanding of ourselves and our motivations. If, for example, I'm afraid I won't be able to afford the mortgage on my house, I can objectively look at that fear and source it back to long-held anxieties over financial stuff. But I can also dismiss this fear with the knowledge that, although I'm a freelancer, I've been able to sustain myself for years without missing a payment, let alone being put out on the street. So, I can embrace that fear and compassionately dispel it. Yes, the economy sucks and no there are no guarantees in life or securities in the workplace, but worrying about what might happen serves no useful purpose. Instead, if I feel that fear bubble up, I can spend more time cultivating new business leads, pitching stories, honing my skills, networking, or just enjoying the flexible schedule afforded to me by a freelance schedule.
Too often, we sit in the "dark" and conjure ghosts from future, like Ebenezer Scrooge. We fly down the stairs seeking the light. And yet, if we could sit with our fear, we'll discover that the ghost is just an illusion (or Mom under a sheet). If we can allow ourselves to see that our fear itself is what separates us from communion with the present reality, then there is there is really nothing to fear.