Vulnerability and Fear

An invading army conquered a feudal Japanese village. The entire village ran away right before the invaders arrived with the exception of the local Zen master. When the general of the invading army heard about the man who did not run away, he went to the temple to meet this stupid man. When the Zen master showed no fear of the general, the general flew into a rage.  “Fool,” shouted the general as he reached for his sword, “don’t you realize you are standing before a man who could run you through without blinking an eye!” The Master then calmly replied, “And do you realize that you are standing before a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?”

This is my favorite story of all time. I first heard a version of it in college and I think of it a lot. In scary moments, or times when I have to face something challenging, I just say the end of it to myself like a mantra, “I can be run through without blinking an eye”. It gives me courage, girds my proverbial loins. I hear it in my mind, not so much in the Japanese setting, but in a more Shakespearean form. Because it actually quite pompous sounding. Some very English fellow with a mustached upper lip that is quite stiff says bravely, in his royal British accent (it’s likely Patrick Stewart) “Do you Sir, realize that you are standing before a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?” Mic drop. Shocked general just walks away.

The amusing thing about all this is that I do not remotely resemble the monk. My neurotic levels of fear and anxiety are legendary amongst family and friends. And the other irony here is that I am more likely to be sanguine about having my guts split open by a samurai than I would be about say, attending a party with friends. Or, providing oversight of a handyman making repairs in my house. Heck, I almost bolted from the house this morning just from hearing Sue play John Denver’s Greatest hits. Though, in my defense, that may be described more as disgust than fear. All I knew is that John and I might both be leaving on a jet plane, but I hoped they left from different airports.

This long intro is my way of saying that I am by nature a fearful, anxious person who desperately wants to live instead with a mental state of calm and equanimity. And so, to the degree I am able, I push myself to confront my fears a lot. I try to stay put in the village waiting for the general with steely nerve. I do this with varying levels of success. I managed to stay put in a career that terrified me each and every day for 25 years. But I was never able to stop being afraid. I confronted it over and over again, but I was not calm. I have managed to learn to speak in front of large groups with no fear. I can do parties, when required, and play the role of guest or host, but the energy it requires will cost me dearly later. Those who worked with me know I can take over a meeting, sometimes inappropriately, talking about my ideas or opinions, but that is a certain environment and I tended to get caught up in the topic and so forgot my fear. I am able to be married fearlessly. In fact, the safety I feel in my home is the bedrock of my strength. But my anxiety then comes around the inevitable loss of those I love as we continue to age. People you love dying is much worse than being run through yourself.

Being retired has been a great gift to me in many ways because I don’t have to meet the general as often. I don’t have to face my fears with so much intensity each and every day. But it also means I can get caught up in the spinning anxieties of my own thoughts. And it is compelling to stay by myself at home where it is safe and where I don’t have to try so hard or take chances. I don’t have to be exposed. I can run away.

This is where the blog comes in. Posting that first entry yesterday was terrifying.  I am not someone who lets random people become my Facebook friends. If you are on my friend list, you are someone who matters to me. We may not see each other often. We may not be close companions, but if you are there, I care about you. And I am taking a chance by sharing my thoughts and feelings with you. My hope is that I can write a lot of posts that are funny in the future. Things that will entertain. Perhaps thought provoking entries. But right now, as I enter into this, it leaves me startlingly, breathlessly vulnerable. And I am standing here trying not to blink an eye.



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