Last weekend I caught the movie Divergent with a friend. In the movie, the characters go through mental training in which their worst fears are virtually actualized: dive-bombing birds, watery graves, walking across beams hundreds of feet above solid ground. Since the movie wasn’t captivating either of us, I turned to my friend and asked him what his worst fears are. He said breezily that he’s lived a good life; he’s pretty much ready to die at any time.
He asked what I’m afraid of. I laughed a hollow little laugh and described a scene with cockroaches underfoot, approaching tornadoes and uncontrollable vomiting while someone tortures me by pulling out my fingernails. And that was just off the top of my head. My friend said that I spend too much time thinking about that kind of thing, and we settled back into watching the movie.
He’s right: I think about fear so much, I’ve even personified it. Some people picture fear as a sort of hulking beast, larger than life. To me, he (yes, fear is a he to me) is human, thin and aloof with sleepy bug eyes. Come to think of it, he reminds me of a tall Steve Buscemi. He leans against the wall of a building in the corner of my mind, picking his teeth with a spent toothpick. He’s no pusher, fear, but he’s always, always there. “You really wanna go my way?” he asks, a little surprised that I’d choose such a difficult route. Again. “OK, suit yourself.” He flicks the toothpick toward the sewer grate and misses, shrugs at it and cocks his head to one side. “You coming, or what?” he asks over his shoulder as he starts to leave.
I hustle after him. Again.
Yes, I understand that fear is a choice. How many FDR-like quotes can I possibly post on Pinterest? And why are these quotes doing diddly squat for me lately? Today I’m thinking about what happens when I try a different response than following fear.
“He’s a minor, 12 years old,” my manager told me before I picked up my client. Slouched on the waiting room couch, he appeared to be a puffy jacket with a pair of legs. Only a shock of black hair peeking over his jacket gave him away. During that first session, his mom (who was present in the room the whole time) informed me that he was on the junior high swim team and trained six days a week. His back and shoulders were constant problems, so she decided that he should try massage.
This was the first minor I’d ever worked on, and to say I was scared is an understatement. Nate* was my first “scary” client for too many reasons. Maybe he and his mom didn’t know this at the time, but I can be even more socially awkward than he appeared. On top of that, I happen to experience performance anxiety and a touch of impostor syndrome. Since massage school, I haven’t really had to deal with that; once I started massaging professionally I realized that I’m the only one watching and judging me, since the client is in no position to see me during the session. But this time…I had an actual witness, and what was worse, it was my young client’s mother.
On top of that, working on a minor brought up a host of other concerns. Some massage therapists in the spa where I work refuse to work on minors to protect themselves from any number of things that can go wrong. I could hurt him, or he could lie and say that I hurt him. I wondered if I should have followed their cue and done the same thing. Was this a big mistake?
I had no reason to worry. Nate felt pain relief on that first day and has become a regular client of mine since then. His mom trusts me enough to stay in the waiting room or get her own massage during our appointments. Having Nate as a young massage client has taught me so much. Working on growing tissue is fascinating. Over these past few months he’s grown a bit, so it seems like I’m working on an entirely different person than the kid I met several months ago. He seems to regard me as a big sister, in a way, and it’s such an honor gaining Nate’s trust and watching him grow, even if it’s over a short duration of time in the grand scheme of his life.
I think back to that first session and how afraid I was. I would have missed out on an incredible experience if I’d followed my thin man, fear.
Right now is a scary time for me. I injured my low back over two weeks ago, and the pain simply isn’t going away. I’ve been afraid to face facts by going to a doctor about it. It could be as straightforward as muscle strain, or it could be something much more serious. It’s easy to let my thoughts run wild. What if this is a career-ending problem? What if I’m facing a lifetime of chronic pain? Should I change my career to protect myself? Or is that just fear talking? Maybe he’s more persuasive than I give him credit for.
The questions I should be asking myself are, why am I so comfortably uncomfortable in a situation I’m too afraid to step out of? What is the appeal here, really? I guess the issue is that finding answers can lead to more questions. And maybe that’s why fear can paralyze us: taking one step inevitably leads to more steps, more scary options to consider. But I’ve got to try. Maybe all of this is one giant obstacle devised to keep me from reaching my dreams. Maybe fear of success or fear of failure is at the root of all of this. Or is that just psychobabble? What’s on the other side of this fear, which is holding me back? It’s time to find out.
*The client’s name has been changed.