Thursday, 8 March 2012

Turning 30 or My fear and me

I promised a fun entry this week, something which might steer clear of the rocks of belief and scepticism, something more digestible. I had intended to write a piece all about symbolism and my feelings therein, but unfortunately I've found that needs me to prepare some source material, so instead you get this (it will likely come next week). This will be a very autobiographical entry, that's a type of writing which I find hard so... that's good, because this will be great practice, sadly it's also potentially bad, because well, it could turn out to be self involved drivel (I trust if it does then someone will let me know).

When I first found that, inevitably, I was turning thirty, I was scared. Not in a 'there's something behind the closet' way, but more in a dull 'oh god, I didn't do my homework' kind of way. I did a few crazy things, possibly the craziest of which was to set out to write two hundred thousand words before the awful date came around. The net result of that challenge is what you see here, these words on this page, that decision was so extreme that I'm still suffering (gladly) the ramifications.

The thing which I didn't realised I needed to do though, was to completely rewrite, in my own head, what it meant to be in your thirties. You see, when you're a sprightly twenty something, for those ten odd years, it's easy to see that date as an arbitrary cut off and beyond that point oldness lies, with babies and mortgages and all the various effluvia of age. But once I'd found myself in that strange new land, I suddenly had to build a new map, one which wasn't made up of generalisations and speculations, I had to tell myself a new story about what it meant to be in my thirties.

Obviously this was all a bit silly, it's an arbitrary number and letting et get to me marks me out as both foolish and incredibly normal. Still, it turns out that the date did have some importance after all, or rather the new story I started telling myself did, and it's a story all about fear.

There is the fear which got me through those two hundred thousand words of course, that fear of failure which I'd somehow yoked towards my hoped for future career. But there was another kind of fear, a kind which, day to day, bit by bit, I found I didn't have to carry around with me any longer. Really this was a fear of living and it's something which has been with me through most of my life.

You see, ever since I was a child I've been particularly and peculiarly afraid of the world. When I was very young this fear didn't have a definite shape, it was a fear of loud noises, of the mummies (in the Egyptian sense) and witches and ghosts that I assumed to be lurking behind every door and in the depths of each shadow. Just going to the toilet, with that flush and all those closed doors, that was scary, I didn't know what could sneak up on me while that water was rushing by and I didn't want to know.

As I grew up different this fear took on different forms. I still remember clearly the day when, aged about ten, I realised that if god didn't exist then dying meant nothing forever (I've actually committed a good number of brain hours to trying to find the root of that fear of death, a subject I'll likely bring an entire future post to bear on). Most of all though it was interacting with the world that scared me, with other people. I'm talking about completely normal things, any situation which might lead to a conversation with a stranger, or just an unexpected question. I remember as a child being given some money and told that I could go into a shop and buy any sweets I wanted, being genuinely torn between the prospect of sugary goodness and the remote possibility that the shopkeeper might ask me something about my purchase, and I might not understand them, and beyond that there was no script in my imagination, just a fearful unknown.

Perhaps this doesn't sound so peculiar. Almost everyone's shy at a young age, children cowering behind their parent's leg is not an unusual sight. In my case though, these effects carried over into my teenage years. Of course the fears developed in places. Every time a plane flew over my house I naturally came to interpret the noise (which was not inconsiderable) as belonging to a nuke, and there was an accompanying few moments of preparing myself for my demise. Equally I found that I was, in sadly disproportionate measures, both attracted to and terrified of girls and all of the prospects for failure and success which they represented. These various new fears weren't replacing the old ones however, they were simply being added to the list. I still found the whole prospect of interactions terrifying, even when, like my monthly trip to renew my bus pass, it was happening repeatedly with nothing going wrong.

As I entered my twenties, I don't think I really ever understood this, I never acknowledged that this was wrong or was in any way different from all the people around me. Of course I had to confront it more often, ringing up to sort gas bills or dealing with university administration. The fear was still there though, I would still always try to make sure I wasn't the one to ring up when me and friends ordered food though and, stranger still, I shied away even from internet interactions, I visited forums and read what other people wrote, but was too scared to post anything myself.

Slowly though, with experience I think (forced and repeated experience), the fear started to dissipate from some of these things. I still remember my surprise when, about to ring Dell and find out what was happening with my new laptop, I checked myself and found that I actually wasn't afraid, I felt totally prepared for what was to come.

I think now that what happened was that, through a childhood and adolescence spent imagining the worst, meticulously laying out the reasons why I should be afraid of each encounter, I went over these things so many times in my own head that I reinforced the reaction. In my early twenties, in any phone call I had to make, the problem was that I knew I would get afraid, I still felt that learned sense of apprehension, however, the essential fear at the centre of the interaction, the imagination so focussed on all the ways that the world might go against me, wasn't there any more. This meant that slowly, where I allowed them to, these learned responses dissipated.

What of my thirties then? Linking this all back to, roughly, where I started. I think that this discovery will really be the joy of my next ten years. Slowly I will get rid of all these learned fears and, ultimately as a result, become myself at last. The strange thing is that, of course it will be scary and of course what the young me feared (that things will go wrong and that I will make an arse of myself) will happen, but that no longer seems like such a bad prospect, it feels natural.

This is then, the new story which I've found to tell myself about what my thirties are and will be. That they'll be awesome, that all the things I avoided doing will be open to me and that, finally, I have the keys to experience life. Whether that turns out to be true or not almost isn't the point, at last I have a great story to tell about where I'm at and where I'm going.

[edit: reading this back I find I am the most uncertain I have been about posting it. Perhaps it's the deeply personal nature of the topic, or perhaps it's that I think, on reflection, some of the things I thought applied only to me, apply to everyone (and vice versa). Either way I'm putting it up anyway and, strangely, that hesitation is rather apropos to the topic at hand]

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