The Secret Way We Learn Fear

Recently, I found a copy of a note I’d written some years ago in an attempt to console a friend in his frustration of arguments with people over the idea of life after death. I’d been privy to some of those conversations and sympathized with him. I wrote:

“Sometimes I feel like chucking it, too, Jack, but the very people who make you so frustrated are the people who are most drowning in fear.

“It’s like they’re in a pool that is only waist deep, but they’ve been tossed in and are floundering and thrashing about in terror.

“They haven’t tried to touch the bottom with their feet, and in their terror, they will reach at you and bring you down under the water, too, and you’ll both be in danger. So, what do you do? Leave the pool? Let them drown? I enjoy the pool very much, but the screaming thrashers make it difficult to enjoy…”

Enough time had passed since the incident that I had trouble remembering what inspired my answer. Reading the note, now months or years later, made me wonder what made me use the drowning person analogy?

Sure, I knew a little about the danger of trying to pull a drowning person to safety. One of the first things they taught me in lifeguard training was how dangerous it was to have a victim spotting you in the water with them – they invariably, instinctively grab you and try to climb to safety, pushing you under to drown.

So, to be a lifeguard, I had to learn how to approach a drowning swimmer. The trick is come up from below and grab them from behind in such a way that their flailing arms and legs don’t endanger you as you pull them to safety…

So this is a reply to a conversation I felt compelled to answer. As I remember the conversation being only vaguely related to my ‘answer’, I began to wonder why I felt compelled to write it down and make it available for me to find again years later.

First, I had to wonder where my answer came from, and I immediately thought of my first experience with a swimming pool.

It was the summer I was three, almost FOUR! years old. I made my Mother miserable for weeks  – by badgering her for swimming lessons. Eventually, she gave in and made the arrangements.

She signed me up for lessons at the local pool, paying for it out of the little grocery allowance she got each week. She even bought me a little rubber swimming cap to keep my hair beautiful! I had my lovely little bathing suit and even picked out my favorite towel to take to the pool. I was ready!

But it turned out that neither of us was prepared.

As I got to the edge of the pool, I was gripped with a horrific fear and refused to go in the water.

My fear was total, all-consuming, and I had no idea where it came from.

It made no sense to me at all.

Even when Mother got in the water first and stood there with her hands out to me, I couldn’t do it, and the closer people came to me to try to help get me in the water, the more I balked – until I was screaming and in tears, terrified that everyone was trying to kill me.

Mother came out of the water, scooped me up and took me home. She was very upset, and I assumed for years that it was because I’d embarrassed her and that she was angry with me.

But, once away from the danger, I calmed down and begged her to take me back and let me try again. To my surprise, she did, and as promised, I went in the water without fear and became the little dolphin we both just knew I’d be.

If I thought about the incident at all, I wondered for years what happened – and assumed she did, too.

I didn’t have a clue until the summer before I went off to college.

Mother treated me to a trip, just her and me, to visit my chosen school several hundred miles away. The trip gave us a chance to become reacquainted as friends, instead of the combatants we’d been since I reached my hormonal adolescent teen years.

On the way back, we passed a sign directing us to a lake not far from the road we were on. Mother recognized the name on the sign and asked me to detour to the lake and find a spot to park so we could talk.

She had a story to tell me about something that happened to me when I was a baby — at this very lake.

When I was a toddler, some family friends took us out on their boat for a ride.

Mother told me how she’d worried that day. I was not quite two years old, but she knew I was unafraid of anything. With no life jacket small enough to protect me, the only thing she knew to do was have Daddy hold me in his lap, wrapped in his strong arms.

She thought that was the safest solution. He would be safe in a life jacket, and she knew would never let me go. But still, she worried –  because she knew that he had a terrible fear of the water and had never learned to swim.

She said she’d never seen him so terrified, quietly clinging to me in the relative safety of the boat.

She said she didn’t think of it at the time, but when she saw my reaction at the edge of the pool for my first swimming lesson, she knew that his fear had been conveyed to me in that boat on the lake.

She’d never told me that story before – out of guilt for not understanding Daddy’s fear. She didn’t think he could possibly be afraid of a little lake and pushed him to go with their friends out on the boat. The only other time she’d seen him on the water was on a boat on the ocean – and believed his fear was of the immense size of the body of water. She rethought that when she saw my reaction to the swimming pool.

If that is true, that he was able to pass that fear to me as a baby, then what have I done to my children, when I held them close when they were sick, wracked with fear …? I shudder to think.

And now, with that disturbing thought, my mind wanders to the questions I see many people bring to the table when discussing the ‘evidence’ of the afterlife in the form of communication from loved ones received through mediums.

The questions usually amount to this:

Why, if the afterlife (or heaven) is so wonderful, as we’ve been led to believe, WHY would our loved ones – or strangers or famous people – WHY WHY WHY would they take time out of enjoying the wonders of their new situation to communicate with us?

Over and over, we’re told the answer is LOVE.

I think I understand that better, now.

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