Friday, March 20, 2009

Never be Frozen by Fear

I had a nightmare recently, the kind that makes you wake up in a cold sweat. This is rare for me as I have what I consider to be a gift, in that I found I have the ability to control my dreams. It started in early childhood when I was terrorized by Snuffalufagus and The Count from Sesame Street. They used to routinely and terrifyingly chase me around a neighborhood grocery store. I eventually trained myself to make them stop. I take this as a point of pride and it has often spared me uncomfortable dreams. If I didn’t like the direction one was going, my mind would call for a rewrite and I reprogrammed the plot. Not so the other night. I was completely frozen and could not control the outcome.

Who knows how the crazy world of dreams puts you in one predicament or another. In this one, I was frightfully clinging to a cliff. The sun was setting over the ocean, casting a deceptively peaceful golden light while the winds were growing stronger.

Perhaps because of my training in television and film I have found I am frequently able to control the angles or the “shots” of the movie in my mind. Like a director in the control room, I’ve been conscious of my ability to zoom in and out and to pan or dolly to get a better or more cinematic view of my surroundings. This nightmare was no exception, but doing so made my peril more visible. As I zoomed out it became clear that I was not clinging to a cliff, but a large rock formation beyond a cliff. Perhaps, I remember thinking, if I were able to scale it I would be able to safely leap back to land. Unfortunately, as often happens in dreams, there were unexpected obstacles. The texture of this weathered rock was smooth with very few crevices to grasp. It also appeared that this rock disguised a marine geyser similar to La Buffadora in Mexico. It acted as a volcano and the top of it threatened to explode huge violent streams of water at any moment.

In my twenties, I participated in a ROPES program with a group of at-risk-kids. The day was filled with trust walks and physical and mental obstacle courses. One of the last challenges was to don a harness and scale a telephone pole, stand on top of it and leap toward a flag that was suspended slightly above it. The belayer controlling the rope from the ground mitigated the fall. By that time in the day, I was physically exhausted and my legs had turned to jelly. I scaled the pole just fine, but could not unlock my legs enough to stand. Ultimately, I decided to push myself off and flailed toward the hanging flag, missing it but remaining safely cradled in the harness as I was unceremoniously lowered to the ground.

While stuck on this rock that memory engulfed me. Unfortunately, this was four times higher and there was no harness and nothing but waves and rocks below. I couldn’t judge if I would be able to dive past the rocks into the ocean. The strengthening wind made me doubt it. I was paralyzed and felt a complete loss of control. Standing there, clinging to a rock, the wind battering me, with the threat of the unknown above me and uncertainty below me.

Much of my nightmare was just the prolonged anguish of witnessing myself in that pose. It was a horrific feeling and I could no longer stand it. I continued to look upward and downward in utter indecisiveness. It was then I woke in that cold sweat. As I lay awake and breathless, I began to replay the scenario in my head. Why was this a nightmare?

The thought occurred to me; how many times do we have to face difficult choices armed with limited knowledge? The choice to move in one direction has uncertainty. A misstep or a random disruptive influence from the outside world could be catastrophic. The choice to move in the other direction may have a more definitive outcome, but it too is a lousy option.

In my dream, if I was able to climb up, I might have been visible to a rescue helicopter. Or, I might have been blown off the side. If I leapt off into the ocean below, it is likely I could have perished from the fall, if not the waves crashing against the rocks. Maybe I could have stayed and waited it out. Perhaps the tide would rise above the rocks. But then it would be night and I was already exhausted clinging for life. How much more could I endure?

That is what made it a nightmare. To have absolutely no control over the situation and to be paralyzed by fear and inaction. I morbidly began to think on where I would have most liked to have had my body found. Clinging to a rock in fear, or somewhere else that showed I at least tried.

It may seem, at certain times in your life that you have no control over the situation you are in. This may be true, but you are always able to control how you respond to these situations. Huddle down, assess your options, and then take action. Sometimes, though rarely, waiting can be an appropriate action – if you’ve assessed your options and made that a conscious decision rather than a fall back to inaction.

Never be frozen by fear. You can never know the result of your decision ahead of time. It may be good or it may be bad, but you will certainly get immediate feedback once you’ve made it. Then, you will need to make another decision based on what you’ve learned. And then another and another. Make them. Make decisions and accept the consequences of them. Choose decisively and keep moving forward.