Most people remember the first time they were confronted with the idea that one day, they would no longer be alive; a terrifying awareness of their own mortality. My moment came when I was around five years old.
As someone with a selective and fuzzy memory of my childhood, few moments are as clear in my mind as this one. I was at a birthday party that had all the conventional ingredients of a child’s birthday celebration: cake, pizza, screaming kids, frantic parents, and of course, balloons. At one point during the party, I remember a little boy running towards me with a large pink balloon. I remember thinking that it was a beautiful balloon and contemplating whether I should ask the boy if I could hold it. In that moment, he brought the balloon right up to my face and squeezed it. I witnessed this balloon explode into tiny pieces in front of my eyes, not to mention the frightening sound that accompanied it. I looked to the ground and saw what had been a full beautiful round balloon now on the floor in a sorry state. I was traumatized to say the least.
In that moment, I looked around the room and became acutely aware of all the other balloons in that room. It dawned upon me that each of those balloons could face the same fate as my pink friend. I felt an unfamiliar sadness and couldn’t really place its origins. That incident prompted many sleepless nights wondering whether we all, like those balloons, would one day cease to exist as we are. I questioned whether whatever was residing within that balloon was now just floating around with no home. It frightened me so much that whenever this thought would sneak into my mind, I would run into my parents room and wiggle myself in between them. Somehow being there made me feel safe and as though all those worries were just my overactive imagination; a story I was creating.
Needless to say, I was never a fan of balloons after that point. I developed a genuine albeit irrational fear of them. It became so extreme that I refused to go to any birthday party where balloons would be present. My closest friends would always throw balloon-free parties and I was grateful for it. Although I’ve improved considerably since then, I still haven’t fully conquered my fear of balloons. Almost 20 years later, I still feel uneasy in their presence and maintain a safe distance from them. I still don’t fully understand the purpose they serve at functions. At every big celebration whether that be a wedding, birthday, or a baby shower, people fill spaces with these pointless pieces of decor. In a recent conversation with two close friends, I discussed my deep aversion to balloons. That discussion provoked a deeper analysis of my long-standing fear and its intricacies. Below are my findings about fear.
1. fear is a couple
One thing I’ve learned is that fear comes in pairs. There is the fear that is comfortable and easy to confront and then there is its evil twin lingering in the background. Something like that scene from the first Harry Potter film where timid Professor Quirell reveals that he is actually He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named as he removes his scarf. Fear is a lot like the dichotomous Professor Quirell; the fear we display is approachable and harmless while the one we conceal is terrifying and destructive.
What we struggle with, in context of this analogy, is acknowledging that the endearing Professor Quirell was actually the most feared being in the Wizarding world the entire time. I apologize for the dragged out metaphor and if you haven’t seen Harry Potter- please go watch it. Coming back to fear, the comfortable fear in my case is that of balloons. If this is what I’m afraid of then it’s not difficult to avoid balloons in the grand scheme of things. What is, however, more difficult is the realization that I’m terrified of what they symbolize. That fear is less tangible and therefore, trickier to deal with. I’ve come to realize that many of our fears carry this duality. The fear of public speaking is often a fear of being judged or feeling unworthy. The fear of being alone can be a fear of your own thoughts. Understanding this sneaky evil twin seems like a crucial first-step to confronting any fear.
2. we fear the unknown
Upon observing society in the short yet eventful life I have lived, I’ve been able to pinpoint an overarching theme: a fear of the unknown. It drives people to do inconceivable things and pursue this “unknown” the same way a man may pursue a woman who isn’t interested- relentlessly. We live in a future-oriented society that always wants to know what’s coming; perhaps it’s the survivor in us that strives to be prepared. The Biggest Unknown is ‘what happens after we die?’ also known as ‘what does my life mean?’ The fact that we ask ourselves these questions and in many cases, mould our lives around them is a testament to our inclination to self-sabotage. Why do we ask ourselves such torturous questions? It’s like starting a puzzle knowing that there are missing pieces but expecting a perfect picture anyway; a frustrating yet addictive pursuit.
This particular unknown manifests in a variety of ways and one doesn’t have to look far to find it. A fear of death drives people to try and immortalize themselves. Fame, reputation, influence, and power are all deeply entangled with an attempt to create a legacy that may outlive us. Crimes committed in the name of religion and wars waged for political gain can be positioned within the framework of this overarching fear. On a smaller scale, we see this fear present in the figures people worship today- influencers and celebrities. It’s almost creepy how perfectly curated these public personas are. In a way, the internet is the most effective tool of immortalization- like the writings in the Pyramids of Giza but instead of intricate messages and detailed artwork, we immortalize big butts and avocado toast.
Today, to be publicly disliked or even worse, “cancelled”, is a death wish for you and the memory of you. This poisonous fear can contaminate relationships and taint genuine connections. The idea of loving someone *cue drumroll* forever, is a perfect example of fearing the Biggest Unknown. The expectation that someone will love you for the rest of your life and theirs can be a bit unrealistic. We become so preoccupied with the forever that we tend to neglect the love. Fear can make forever the goal and not the byproduct. If a relationship doesn’t measure up to this timeframe, it is considered a failure as if love is dependent on time as opposed to depth. Fact: we all die and no one knows (with certainty) what comes next. It is as if this indisputable fact is that clearly uninterested woman and Society is the persistent guy who will continue to chase her without taking the hint. Maybe Society needs to realize she’s not going to respond no matter how good his line is and move on. Maybe in moving on, society will pursue life with the same intensity that it pursues a fear of death.
3. what does fear, fear?
If fear is such a detrimental force in our lives, how do we tame it? In my moments of fear, both big and small, one reliable method has proven effective: applying perspective. In my experience, Perspective is Fear’s kryptonite. Fear is like that friend who always wants to be at the center of attention. That friend is loud and dominating and can often overshadow other equally cool friends who just don’t have the same confidence. What would this friend despise more than anything? Having their spotlight taken away. We need to remind Fear that he is not that special, and give other voices the air time they deserve. By doing so, Fear will learn his place. Over time, Fear will understand that if he keeps demanding attention this way, he will no longer be invited to the party. We need to remind our fear, whatever it is, that it is only one of many voices at times when it’s the only one we can hear. Perspective is so powerful that it can show us that everything matters while at the same time, nothing does. What is incredible is that we can change our perspective at any time- to fear is ultimately a choice.
Going back to the event that started this deep investigation, a little bit of perspective could have easily helped my younger self overcome her debilitating fear of balloons sooner. This would have probably benefited my friends whose childhoods were filled with balloon-less parties. It would have also saved me a lot of anxiety on birthday’s. Perspective could have showed my fear that while seeing a balloon could be a reminder of the inevitable demise of all balloons, it could also be a reminder to value them while they are abundant.
Before the balloon was tragically murdered in front of me, it was a beautiful pink ballon and that is how I saw it. After the incident, I viewed all other balloons through a lens of fear. I became so focused on what could eventually happen to them, I completely missed out on their beauty altogether.