‘The cat brought in a snake and left it under my bed. Screaming, I chased it out’
THE novelist on learning to accept fear
I’m not brave. Most of all I’m afraid of anything that creeps, and especially snakes. I’m afraid of spiders, woodworms, mosquitoes, even flies. I’m afraid of heights, and of elevators, cable cars, aeroplanes.
I’m afraid of the very ground we stand on when I imagine that it might split open or, because of a sudden breakdown in the workings of the universe, fall down, as in the nursery rhyme we recited as children, playing ring around the rosy. Ring around the rosy, The world falls down, The earth falls down, All fall down: ah, how those words terrified me. I’m afraid of all human beings when they become violent: I’m afraid of them when they shout, when they insult, when they wield words of contempt, clubs, chains, weapons that slash or shoot, atomic bombs.
And yet, as a child, whenever it was necessary to appear fearless, I appeared fearless. I soon got used to being less afraid of dangers, whether real or imaginary, and began to fear more, much more, the moment when others reacted, because I hadn’t known how to react. My girlfriends shrieked because there was a spider? I overcame my disgust and killed it. The man I loved proposed a vacation in the mountains with the obligatory rides on a chairlift? I was dripping with sweat, but I went.
Once, the cat brought in a snake and left it under my bed, and I, with a broom and dustpan, screaming, chased it out. And if someone threatens my daughters, or me, or any human being, or any harmless animal, I resist the desire to run away.
Popular opinion has it that people who react as stubbornly as I’ve trained myself to have real courage, which consists precisely in overcoming fear. But I don’t agree. We fearful-belligerents place at the top of all our fears the fear of losing self-respect. We value ourselves very highly, and in order not to have to face our own humiliation, we are capable of anything. In other words, we drive away our fears not out of altruism but out of egotism.
And so, I have to admit, I’m afraid of myself. I’ve known for a long time now that I can get carried away, so I’m trying to soften the aggressive reactions I’ve forced myself to have ever since I was a child. I’m learning, like a character in Conrad, to accept fear, even to exhibit it with self-mockery. I began to do this when I realised that my daughters got scared if I defended them from dangers – small, large or imaginary – with excessive ardour. What perhaps should be feared most is the fury of frightened people.