“There is so much we overlook, while the abundance around us
continues to shimmer, on its own.”
Naomi Shihab Nye
The night’s rain left the earth fresh and smelling of green things growing. The birds, playing hide and seek in the tree tops, called out, “Over here, over here.” And yet I stepped hesitantly into this lush, cool morning. I looked at every spot my foot would land before setting it down because I was afraid. Afraid of stepping on a snake.
My fear of snakes comes from an encounter with a large black snake when I was a child. This fear is totally irrational, since the snake didn’t harm me in any way. And yet, this fear is really the only one I have never outgrown. I know there are snakes in these woods. I’ve seen them. And although I’ve only seen harmless snakes, neighbors have seen copperheads. So despite the fact that my children played in these woods for many years without incident, I rarely venture into them.
Ophidiaphobia, the technical term for fear of snakes, “is among the most common animal phobias,” according to Phobias: The Psychology of Irrational Fear: The Psychology of Irrational Fear, (ABC-CLIO, 2015) edited by Irena Milosevic Ph.D., Randi E. McCabe Ph.D.
Okay, I’m not alone. And, even though, copperheadsnake.net reassures readers that “the chance of a fatal bite and envenomation by a copperhead is probably less than 1 to 5,000,” I’m not sure that makes me feel any better.
But my ophidiaphobia got me thinking about fear in general. Let me be clear, I’m not thinking about fear for our lives when we’re in mortal danger. Being afraid of an approaching hurricane is not the same as being nervous about trying a new teaching method or visiting a new city or country. Rather, I’m wondering about irrational fears and why it’s so hard to let go of them. And, what are we afraid of, really?
My suspicion is that it’s fear of being vulnerable, making a mistake, of looking foolish, or being wrong. So much has been written about this kind of fear lately that it’s hard to distill. TED Talks about vulnerability, failure, and fear are among the most watched, and book shelves bulge with volumes whose goal is to help us overcome our fears.
What exactly is the difference between fear and vulnerability? Psychology Today defines fear as “a vital response to physical and emotional danger,” whereas to be vulnerable is to be “easily hurt or harmed physically, mentally, or emotionally.” And yet Brené Brown has said that “vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.” Aren’t these the feelings we want to nurture not only in ourselves but in our students?
So the issue isn’t one of not being afraid or vulnerable. As Kathryn Schulz explains in her TED Talk, “our capacity to screw up is not some kind of embarrassing defect in the human system…it’s totally fundamental to who we are.” The issue is to learn how to balance our fear and vulnerability so that we can choose a new or less familiar path. A path where we can see the lushness of the surrounding countryside. A path that can lead us to the delight of discovery.
The world is full of things to be afraid of. But it’s also full of wonder. I don’t want to miss those wonders because I’m so busy looking down, always watchful for a snake.
Thank you to Stacey, Dana, Betsy, Beth, Kathleen, Deb, Melanie, and Lisa for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.