When I was eight, I was pretty sure that monsters with claws six inches long and jowls as slobbery as a three-headed mastiff lurked beneath my bed. They crouched in wait, ready to snatch me by the ankle if I dared to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. I knew they would drag me to a dark pit that would open up beneath my bed and from which (I was absolutely positive) there was no escape. The only possibility of getting past these monsters was to leap off the safety of my bed into the middle of the room, where a writhing hoard of nearly invisible black snakes slithered across the night floor blocking my way to the door. If I happened to step on one of them, I was pretty sure it would rise up and bite me with venom that would make my face swell and then pop off my head in fewer seconds than it would take to rouse my parents and alert them to the likelihood of my imminent demise.
If I managed not to step on them, these sneaky snakes would surely race toward me and slither silently up my pajama legs and wrap themselves around my arms, before biting me in the neck. That much was certain.
If I jumped off the bed and survived the journey across the bedroom floor far enough to make it to the door, there was an enormous fox who lived in the closet just beside the bedroom door who would lurch out just as I reached for the doorknob. He would grab me by the scruff of the neck like a helpless kitten and stuff me into his boiling stew pot.
Consequently, I sat awake in bed many nights urgently having to pee but too immobilized by fear to even attempt to make a break for the door until the light of dawn revealed the absence of any previously lurking denizens.
It wasn’t just things in the night that scared me. Oh, no, I probably invented a host of phobias as yet unknown to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual!
Taking a cue from the Cowardly Lion who only needed to be told he was brave to find the courage he lacked, my mother hatched a plan to develop courage in me. She parked the station wagon in the lot across the street, assured me that as the eldest, I was the most suitable designee for this job, give me a dollar and commanded me to walk to the Cumberland Farms store, a mere twenty yards across the street to buy a gallon of milk while she waited in the car with the “little kids.” The enormity of the task loomed ahead like a hundred mile obstacle course!
I was so sure, absolutely positive, in fact that I would be hit by a car and flattened like a pancake that I WOULD NOT cross until I could not see any car in any direction. This drove my mother crazy. “Cross the street!” she would yell from the comfort and safety of the car.
My younger brothers would chant “Now! Now! Now!” from the back seat.
“Not yet!” I would whimper back as I stood, knees knocking, stomach in my throat, too terrified to move, watching until the last taillights disappeared over the horizon–because as we all know, drivers are apt to unpredictably shift their cars into reverse and back up in the middle of the road at full speed, giving no chance of survival to anyone crossing the road at that moment. Only when there was absolutely NO car in sight, would I race across the street as fast as adrenaline could propel me. I would purchase the milk and then I would have to take the harrowing trip back across the street to the car. After repeated trials with no discernable improvement, my mother gave up, pronounced me, “hopeless” and allowed my daredevil younger brother to complete the errand. How that kid could saunter across a street! To this day, he has absolutely no respect for impending doom.
One day, I gained a secret weapon. Aunt Amy gave me a magic blue flashlight that had the power to make any monsters evaporate when they are exposed to even the faintest beam of its light. And, as strange as it may sound, it worked! That magic beam was as powerful as any light sabre and it saved my life on more occasions than I can count!
Though they seemed very real to me in the dark night of my childhood bedroom, I have learned since then that most of my childhood fears were imagined. The absurdity of my monster fears hit me one day in college and I burst out laughing.
In truth, if a pit were to actually open beneath my bed, it would have sucked me down to deposit me in my father’s lap where he sat in his La-Z-Boy, watching TV in the family room directly below my bed. But you couldn’t have told me that as a child. As I child I lived in that vaporous reality between imagination and verifiable truth.
Dismissing these imagined demons of childhood doesn’t mean that the world isn’t full of monsters. Quite the opposite! The world is full of pitfalls and perils of far greater consequence than mere monsters. But, I have learned that life is nothing if we let fear control our path. In fact, the shortest way to success, and our greatest happiness is often plotted by taking a flying leap off the safe places in life and landing feet first into the middle of a writhing ball of invisible black snakes; doing the very things we fear most!
I suspect in fact that even as adults, our own fear; particularly the fear of failure is the biggest thing that keeps us from achieving our goals. Reason is the flashlight of adulthood. Like a well-aimed laser beam, reason casts light on fear and zaps it into oblivion or at least slices it neatly into perspective. Given the right pieces of information, we can analyze complex situations and banish even the giant foxes hiding in our closets!
I have found that the motivation to complete a real life obstacle course and confront demons cannot be handed to someone or demanded of or shamed into someone. That courage must be born of determination that rises from within. Cultivating courage can be a slow process for a timid person. With each little stroke of success that life has handed me, I developed another layer of strength to fight even bigger, less imaginary monsters.
After completing a BA in English and Anthropology, I took a flying leap into Counseling Psychology—a complete change of major. I landed firmly in the middle of that writhing ball of snakes usually known as grad school. In a way, the snakes did climb up my pajama legs and wrap around my arms. I was afraid and overwhelmed for a while. It was like landing in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language. I was sure I would flunk out before the first semester ended. But I did not quit. I kept battling that mess one snake at a time! Imagine my surprise when I ended the semester with straight A’s. I looked around and all the grad school snakes had evaporated; they’d been cast into oblivion by my hard work and hard won confidence.
My husband and I had long decided that it was past time to leave Minnesota. Spring is the time to sell a house in Minnesota, not winter when the foundation is buried in snow and the driveway has to be shoveled hourly.
But the long distance job hunt was not going well. The time to move was upon us. If we did not jump soon, the moment of opportunity would be lost for at least another year. The only way to move beyond the nearly endless winter of Minnesota was to sell nearly everything; a lifetime of accumulated possessions and move to a warmer place where we had no jobs, no promise of a place to live, no family, no friends, no security, nothing to rely upon but our combined wits. We gathered up our kids and with both eyes opened, jumped into the thing we both desired and feared the most: a warmer life in North Carolina.
It was a difficult landing and we struggled for quite a few years. The snakes of life wriggled mightily, but I can honestly say that this biggest leap of our lives has been the most rewarding.
Each of us has the power to fight the monsters under our beds, the writhing balls of invisible snakes in the middle of the room, and even the giant foxes in our closets. If you start with the focused light that is belief in yourself and aim that beam at one goal at a time, you will evaporate them all, one monster, one snake, one giant fox at a time.
Is there something holding you back from your goals? Take a good long look at it. Shine a clear light directly on it. Analyze the situation and take the steps to reach your goal.
I’ve got a magic blue flashlight I don’t need any more. You’re welcome to it if you need one. Just pass it on to someone else when you’re done with it.