When I was a kid, I was scared of fire. I was so scared of fire that I got nervous about birthday cakes. I was afraid someone would get a sleeve or their hair too close to the candles and go up in flames. The single most terrifying place for me to be was in the middle of a candlelight service with all sorts of people holding candles close to other people and flammable objects. The furnace at home made me nervous because you could see the flames inside, just burning there inside a little metal box in the wall and powered by explosive gas.
I just knew that anywhere there was fire, anywhere there was the potential for a spark, there was also the potential for a deadly inferno. Just one too many minutes without supervision, one careless movement, could be catastrophic. I imagined that the tiniest spark could become a blaze in seconds, that as soon as the flame came close to something flammable it would combust so fast nobody would be able to stop it.
The funny thing about fear, though, is that it also breeds fascination. The more scared I was of fire, the more I thought about it. The more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t help thinking about it. I saw the potential for danger in more and more situations. I obsessed over it.
And then something shifted in my thinking. You can’t go your whole life without handling fire in some form: cooking, lighting a candle, turning on a heater. And as I found myself creating and using fire myself I realized that as long as I was controlling the flame, holding the lighter, managing the stove burner, I was fine. It wasn’t the fire I didn’t trust. It was the ability of other people to control it.
It’s much easier to admit that you’re scared of an object, a phenomenon, an ideology, than it is to admit that you’re scared of the people around you. It sits easier in the mind to focus your fear on something inanimate. That way we can comfortably use words like “destroy” and “contain” and “control” rather than “kill” and “imprison” and “oppress”.
As long as I could focus my fear on the fire, I didn’t have to face the people around me and tell them I didn’t trust them not to hurt me. To admit your fear to others is to admit that you are vulnerable. To admit to others that you fear them is to give them power over you.
But I could have spent my whole life avoiding fire, fireproofing my surroundings, hoarding extinguishers and surrounding myself with smoke detectors, and it would never have changed the fact that I was really scared of the rest of humanity. That fear of others gave everyone else power over me whether I admitted or understood that fear or not.
Ultimately, I got over my fear, and I didn’t do it by trying to make it impossible for me to ever get burned. I didn’t do it by convincing myself that fire couldn’t harm me or wasn’t potentially dangerous. I got over my fear the day I realized that my fear wasn’t protecting me from anything. It was only making me more fearful, more vulnerable.Tags: fear, personal essay
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