Staring down a hallway, in your jammies, you have to pee. At age 10, this is the ultimate test of courage. The path to the bathroom is clear, and you know exactly where the light switch is. Listen. Nothing. Now run.Who among us has never experienced this? The adrenaline rush of childish fear, your back cold and tingly with imagined ghosts that shadow your every move. Movements in the corner of your eye and the swelling of silence all around. But we all get over that, right? Long before we become scared of the job market, this is the sort of primordial fright we have to face, which turned out to be our topic of discussion this week at Conversation & Culture.
After breaking up into smaller groups we watched the beginning of “Smash Fear, Learn Anything,” a TED Talk by Tim Ferriss. When he was young and at summer camp, a bully held Ferriss underwater until he thought he was going to drown; this terrified him and prevented him from swimming until he was a 30-something. Not everyone in our group knew how to swim, but we could tell the fear wasn’t as intense for us as it was for Ferriss. Intuiting this, one group member posed the question: “What is your biggest fear?” Without missing a beat, one student sitting at the far end of the table said “Nightmares.” Let me share a nightmare of sorts with you all.
My apartment has a long narrow hallway running 50 feet from the back porch to the street windows. Standing outside of my bedroom door and looking left toward the bathroom, I can see a lone chair sitting at the far end, facing out of the window. Leonard sits there.
My roommates and I created Leonard one year ago; he’s our unspoken imaginary fourth roommate. In sporadic conversation over several months, we gave Leonard clothing, personal tastes, a history, we engaged in conversation with him and breathed him into our imaginations. He’s soft spoken, dressed like a casual fisher you’d find in South Carolina, and never sleeps. During the day we don’t notice him much; he keeps to himself, gazing out the window, unperturbed by the cats jumping in and out of his lap. We’re relaxed. Later though, once we have all closed our doors to sleep, his invisible presence feels real. Suddenly the details we agreed upon flash back to mind: “Have you ever noticed how Leonard will just stare at you if you walk around at night?” It’s 4:00AM, I’m walking to the bathroom and there’s an eerily calm man in a high back blue chair at the other end of the apartment just staring at me. He’s sitting, but it seems like the moment I turn away from him he could glide right up behind, breath on my neck, and snap back to his seat before I look again. I’m 22, not 10, but my imagination disagrees.
In Ferriss’ video he made the point that articulating our fear allows us to move beyond it and learn. With an active fear, like Ferriss’ inability to swim or dance intimately, we can study how professional swimmers or tango dancers succeed in those endeavors, apply their skills to our lives, and overcome fear in that way. And yet the more simple, childlike, and inarticulable fear of the unreal may not be as simple to deconstruct. What are we to do with nightmares? With Leonard?
At the risk of angering the Ghost Hunters cast, I’m going to posit that the monsters and ghosts that were viscerally real to us as children, and perhaps peripherally so as adults, are of our own creation. My roommates and I stopped talking about Leonard; slowly he slipped from our imaginations and out of my nightly trips to the toilet. Around the table at Conversation & Culture, everyone’s imaginations took hold of this story and gave it energy by picturing Leonard to themselves. But as we moved on to listen to Ziggy Stardust, we forgot about Leonard and the nightmares we had discussed. And that’s just another realization that came from Conversation & Culture: sometimes overcoming fear is as simple as forgetting it.