Tuesday, February 17, 2015

An Exploration of Fear: Part 1: Courage, Performance, and Phobia

I'm not always sure how I would define courage, but I know that I am not a courageous person. One of my friends, a very practical and soulful woman, has a matter-of-fact way of responding to me whenever I say I could never be strong if faced with more adversity.  She has no time for such nonsense.  "You could, if you had to."  Perhaps she is right.  She certainly has a higher opinion of my abilities than I have.

I suppose one definition of courage is doing a thing that makes you afraid.    I'm afraid most of the time so that gives me many opportunities to be courageous.  I very rarely take them.  For instance, I do not drive although I have a driver's license.  I never wanted to drive.  Ever.  When I was a teenager and it was time for me to take the test, I hid the practice booklet in the dog's bed so I wouldn't find it, and then was actually able to block the hidden location from my memory for several weeks.  It took forever to find the darn book.  (Likewise, I have the ability to un-remember how much student loan debt I accumulated.) Sadly for me, the book was found, the test was taken and passed, and I began to drive to college when I was eighteen.  This independence lasted for one year, but after transferring to a four year school I all but stopped.  And then, after meeting my husband, I pretty much stopped entirely.

My family is very supportive of this.  On many occasions, especially when I have had a conference, performance, appointment, or other obligation, my husband has taken time off of work to ensure that I have a chauffeur.  (He was, in fact, a professional chauffeur at one point in his working life.)  My parents also drive me.  My mother takes my children and me to appointments and on outings.   My father drives me to and from work.  Since he and I work in the same building, this is not a hardship except that I must arrange my teaching schedule to coincide with his commuting schedule.  This means that our division chairperson also accommodates my phobia by ensuring that our course schedules won't conflict with our transportation pattern.

It is not merely the driving that terrifies me.  I do not like to be without my family.  I live with my grandmother, parents, husband, and children.  I work with my father and share an office with him.  In many ways, I am more like a nineteenth-century woman than a woman of today.  Always accompanied by a relative, I live a protected life.  My parents, my husband, and now even my children watch out for me and handle social interactions that upset me.   They make phone calls for me and accompany me when I need to interact with people who make me nervous (nearly everyone!)  They shield me.  I mean this both figuratively and literally.  I often walk slightly behind my husband and hold onto his arm or elbow when in public places.  He waits for cues from me to know whether or not I dare risk interaction with people outside the family.  If he sees me withdraw, he takes over.  I note my children often scan my face to see if I need help or am feeling overwhelmed.  It is impossible to articulate how much gratitude and shame I feel when they come to my rescue.

There are noteworthy exceptions to my usually anxious, socially-phobic behaviors.  For instance, when teaching, giving speeches, "working a crowd", or otherwise engaged in my work as a teacher or a performer, there would be no way anyone would guess how painfully introverted and anxious I am.  I will strut, pull faces, tell jokes, swear like a dockworker, tell stories, and play both fool and philosopher for an audience.  If I can do it in costume, all the better.  They do not need to know that my family drove me to the event and is waiting in the wings to collect me.  They do not need to know that I will return home full of conflicting feelings of glory and self-doubt, headaches, anxiety, and depression.  They don't know that it will take me several hours and perhaps even days to recover once the adrenaline rush subsides.

People say I am brave. They are wrong.  They think I am being brave when I perform or when I reveal my vulnerabilities to strangers in my writing.  But such things are not difficult for me.  Disclosure of vulnerability is performative rather than courageous.  I do not mean that it is false, but that it is incorporated in what I have always felt called to do.  The weaknesses that limit me and that make my life so very private and shielded "in real life" can be safely exposed during performance.  I do not know why this is the case.  Ask me to expose the tender-most part of myself before an audience, and I will do so.  You may call me brave, but that cost me very little.  Returning your phone call, on the other hand, took everything I've got.


Daniel Wilcox said...

We humans do have paradoxical sides to our personalities, don't we? Almost like a the front and backside of a mirror and somewhere in between.

The insecurity expressed in your blog posts seemed to increase as years passed, but based on what you've said in this new post, I guess it was always there. Early on we only saw the performance side of Hystery, not the individual who would hide her practice book.

On the other hand, I think maybe this is more a question of degrees than you do. Because I remember being shocked in the past when I got to personally know a famous speaker. On stage he seemed in charge, supremely confident, all guts...(if only I could be like him).

But when we became acquainted, I discovered he was often (off stage) almost passive, not at all the supremely confident guy.

One can see this in movie actors too. Watch some famous movie, and you think, wow, that actor really has it together, is so in charge, but then she appears for an interview or to accept an award, and she's a shrinking violet!

Since, I know only your screen personas, I wouldn't hazard a guess as to the real Hystery, but my speculation is that all sides of her are real and valuable.

Keep blooming:-)

Daniel Wilcox

Hystery said...

I've always been both very, very introverted and shy (the two are not synonymous but I possess both qualities) and a performer. My father, who also has had a public speaking career all his life, is introverted and feels insecurity. One would never know it. He has enormous charisma. He told me about his own shyness when I was a little girl and it was a great comfort to me. I think it also helped me become a public speaker as an adult.

Perhaps there is some kind of kindness in the juxtaposition of these qualities. Without the urge to retreat within, one could lose oneself in the world. Without the desire to express the inner world, one could lose oneself within.

Stidmama said...

Thank you. I also am paralyzed (or nearly) by many things that others find as simple as breathing, but can perform and teach as if I were born to it. Perhaps I was... Our strengths often lie in our vulnerabilities, because it means we need others and it humanizes us to know we are not invincible nor are we self-sufficient. I value your posts and eagerly read them when they show up on my blog feed.

Hystery said...

Stidmama, thank you for your comment. I had hidden the post before I found your words and the felt the courage to put it up again.

Finally Spring

My kids and I planted bulbs today.  What a difference one week makes!  The spring warmth has brought everyone outdoors.  People are walking ...