Defending Your Weakness
Please understand that the only reason I can speak so authoritatively about fear is that I know it so intimately. I know every inch of fear, from head to toe. I’ve been a frightened person my entire life. I was born terrified. I’m not exaggerating; you can ask anyone in my family, and they’ll confirm that, yes, I was an exceptionally freaked-out child. My earliest memories are of fear, as are pretty much all the memories that come after my earliest memories.
Growing up, I was afraid not only of all the commonly recognized and legitimate childhood dangers (the dark, strangers, the deep end of the swimming pool), but I was also afraid of an extensive list of completely benign things (snow, perfectly nice babysitters, cars, playgrounds, stairs, Sesame Street, the telephone, board games, the grocery store, sharp blades of grass, any new situation whatsoever, anything that dared to move, etc., etc., etc.).
I was a sensitive and easily traumatized creature who would fall into fits of weeping at any disturbance in her force field. My father, exasperated, used to call me Pitiful Pearl. We went to the Delaware shore one summer when I was eight years old, and the ocean upset me so much that I tried to get my parents to stop all the people on the beach from going into the surf. (I just would’ve felt a lot more comfortable if everyone had stayed safely on his or her own towel, quietly reading; was that too much to ask?) If I’d had my way, I would have spent that entire vacation—indeed, my entire childhood—indoors, snuggled on my mother’s lap, in low light, preferably with a cool washcloth on my forehead.
This is a horrible thing to say, but here goes: I probably would’ve loved having one of those awful Munchausen-syndrome-by-proxy mothers, who could have colluded with me in pretending that I was eternally sick, weak, and dying. I would have totally cooperated with that kind of mother in creating a completely helpless child, given half the chance.
But I didn’t get that kind of mother.
Not even close.
Instead, I got a mother who wasn’t having it. She wasn’t having a minute of my drama, which is probably the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. My mom grew up on a farm in Minnesota, the proud product of tough Scandinavian immigrants, and she was not about to raise a little candy-ass. Not on her watch. My mother had a plan for turning around my fear that was almost comic in its straightforwardness: At every turn, she made me do exactly what I dreaded most.
Scared of the ocean? Get in that ocean!
Afraid of the snow? Time to go shovel snow!
Can’t answer the telephone? You are now officially in charge of answering the telephone in this house!
Hers was not a sophisticated strategy, but it was consistent. Trust me, I resisted her. I cried and sulked and deliberately failed. I refused to thrive. I lagged behind, limping and trembling. I would do almost anything to prove that I was emotionally and physically totally enfeebled.
To which my mom was, like, “No, you aren’t.”
I spent years pushing back against my mother’s unshakable faith in my strength and abilities. Then one day, somewhere in adolescence, I finally realized that this was a really weird battle for me to be fighting. Defending my weakness? That’s seriously the hill I wanted to die on?
As the saying goes: “Argue for your limitations and you get to keep them.”
Why would I want to keep my limitations?
I didn’t, as it turned out.
I don’t want you keeping yours, either.