I sometimes wake at dawn to a feeling of dread buried deep in the pit of my stomach. Sometimes I know the source; other times I have no clue.
The morning calls began in February, 2008. My sister called one night to tell me that her advancing struggles with lifting her feet and walking had been diagnosed: Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Her callous neurologist delivered her death sentence just before Christmas. He said, “You’ve got ALS. Go home; quit your job; buy a wheelchair.”
Carla died in 2013. My wife’s recovery from intense vertigo began, in the same month, to drift backward into a nasty, prolonged relapse. From the fall of 2013 to the spring of 2014, I often woke up in the gray predawn to worries about my wife’s health and our financial future. A gnawing feeling ate away at my stomach, and nothing made it go away until I gave up on sleep and got busy with the work of the day.
I woke up this morning with a similar sensation in my gut. Nothing terribly bad is going on in my life at the moment, though worries about my parents nag from time to time. I tried to pinpoint the trouble spot generating my discomfort, but came up blank. I chalked it up at first to free floating anxiety, but became dissatisfied with an easy dismissal of the problem.
I thought about this possibility: maybe fear is a form of emotional PTSD. 2013 endures in memory as the worst year of my life, and the waves of upheaval and unease I’m still experiencing are just late arrivals. Starlight comes to us from eons ago. Maybe the pain from a past event still approaches like a dissipating wave from a distant source.
Another possibility: I’m approaching my sixtieth birthday, and my eventual demise no longer seems all that eventual. My uncomfortable morning gut might just be my body and unconscious coming to grips with death.
One last possibility: fear is the ground of existence. I fear death. I fear pain, emotional and physical. I fear conflict and failure. I fear losing whatever measure of love, comfort and success I’ve gained. I fear dying alone. Buddha said that the basic condition of life is suffering. Po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe. It feels more like fear to me.
Einstein reported that qualms of mortality had begun in old age to transform into another sensation, one of merging with nature. As his body failed, so did the barriers between his ego and the cosmos.
Many claim that death is just the transformation of an energy signature into another form, an escape from the drudgeries of mortal life to an immortality of freedom and light. That sounds pretty good to me…
But I’m not going to fool myself into thinking that I’m getting close to Albert’s state of transcendence. Acknowledging that I’m afraid, paradoxically, makes fear more bearable. If fear is a norm, there’s not much point worrying about it or even taking it too seriously. Denying fear is like trying to avoid the effects of gravity.
Douglas Adams jokingly described a method of flying: a person must throw themselves at the ground and miss. Maybe courage and good cheer are gained by throwing oneself at fear and missing.
Wish me luck.