Friday, August 29, 2014
By Jean Roberta
"Or perhaps in Slytherin,
You'll make your real friends,
Those cunning folk use any means
To achieve their ends."
- The Sorting Hat (in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)
“Jeanie, do you know what to do if a snake bites you?”
The grownups in my life asked me this question every time I wanted to leave my grandma’s house in Myrtle Creek, Oregon, when we visited there in the summer. The thought of rattlesnakes in the long grass rattled them. My relatives probably didn’t have a phobia, exactly, but they seemed obsessed.
I never actually saw a rattlesnake in the weedy patches of small-town Oregon. I suspect they stayed away from humans, accurately sensing that they wouldn’t get a warm welcome.
In the spirit of making friends with the monsters in your head or under the bed, I once imagined a conversation with a talking snake:
“Am I in your way?”
“Are you planning to bite me?”
“Not unless you pissss me off.”
“Oh, good. Thank you. I’ll just leave you alone. Have a nice day.”
That was it. I stayed away from the places where I thought rattlesnakes might hide, and they left me alone. It seems we had a pact.
As far as I know, I’ve never had an irrational fear, called a phobia, but I’ve had several fears that seem entirely rational to me: fear of drowning when out on a lake in a tippy boat, fear of catching fire if too close to a flame or a hot burner on a stove, fear of suffocating when I had pneumonia at age eleven. Fear of being bitten by a spider in a dank basement or stung by a wasp in late summer, or by any other poisonous creature. Fear of an angry man who thinks the world is too full of women who are just asking to be raped and killed.
To calm my fear, I always use the negotiation techniques shown above. Strangely enough, most animals, insects, and even physical elements or processes seem more logical in these discussions than many humans.
“Fire, do you want to burn me?”
“I love to eat, and I love oxygen. Come near me when there’s a breeze, and see what happens.”
“Good warning. I’ll keep my distance, and keep something nearby to smother you.”
“Water, do you want to swallow me?
“Not you in particular, but I’m not fussy. If you can’t breathe in me, it’s not my problem.”
“Okay, I'll always bring an inflatable object.”
Deep breaths, caution, awareness, and some useful props – those always seem comforting.
In the long run, of course, nothing will protect me from dying. All living things are eventually defeated by something. So in some sense, the most debilitating phobia seems more rational than the baseless faith that keeps us going, day after day, as we tell ourselves the lie that the world is a safe place.
People with phobias, as distorted as those fears may be, are probably just more in touch with reality than the rest of us. For the meanwhile, I’ll keep telling myself that non-human forces are willing to negotiate.