Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Fire Walkers

by Zinta Aistars

Not the chest-thumping, sword-swinging, trumpet-blaring kind, but the silent sort of heroics—these are the moments of courage I so deeply admire. Not the fearless moments, but indeed those moments when one feels fear most, the full blast of it, the quicksand of it, the lava eruption when fear burns through your core and leaves you on buckling knees. Then you rise and do what you must anyway. You do what is right, not because someone else demands it, not because someone is watching, not for applause or reward, but because it is the right thing to do.

Yes, that is what I respect, even revere. We see it so rarely. This submission to the power of our fears. This acknowledgment of our demons. This letting go, just before standing up and taking control back again. It is accountability, responsibility. It is walking through fire. And over just the past few days, I have witnessed two such heroes, doing battle.

No muscle-bound Schwarzeneggers, mind you. One of my heroes is a young woman I’ve been blessed to know since she was a little girl. The other, a woman who left no name, but a lengthy comment on a book review I’d written years ago, telling me of her fight to reclaim herself. These two women humble me and they inspire me. I sense the fear in them both, even as both of them grit their teeth to rise up from their knees after they have lived their lives too long pretending to have control where there was none. Until now. It is when we at long last submit to the fact that we have none that we finally have just enough.

The young woman, a dear family friend, called me as she stood outside the door of a hospital. She was about to admit herself into a treatment program for alcohol addiction. Over the phone line, I could hear the chattering of her teeth. She was shaking with fear. She was crying. She was terrified. I asked her to tell me what it was she feared most, because I have long believed that once we name a fear, we have taken away—in that naming—a great deal of its power over us. In my mind’s eye, I could see her, far away yet right before me, staring at the door, closed but always with the potential to open.

“I’m afraid of finding out who I am, and am not, without my addiction,” she said. “I am afraid of being fully alive. With nothing in me deadened or dampened, but to be fully present to life. I’m afraid of the void that will open in me where this was and afraid I will not know how to fill it.”

In hearing her, it suddenly occurred to me that for all of people saying we fear death most, it may indeed be life we fear most. Being all. Feeling all. With open heart on sleeve, vulnerable, a vessel waiting to be filled with every possible blessing. Every sense vibrating and receiving. Every emotion vibrant and expressed. Love: unadulterated and unconditional, toward ourselves and others. Pain without anesthetic, yes, but also joy in all its depth and breadth. How terrifyingly wonderful …

Born into a broken family, this young woman had not had an easy childhood. There were other addicts in her family. There was poverty and struggle and deprivation and abandonment and abuse. Life was overwhelming, and so she had learned to deaden herself to it. Now, she tired of merely going through the motions of empty emotions. She hungered to be fully alive, even as she feared it. As surely all of us do. She tired of feeling lost, and she longed to find her way even as it terrified her. This door before her, perhaps it would open on a new path, and no doubt a very narrow one but with an ever expanding horizon. To enter that door, she had to first know hope.

I knew she could do this. I had watched her grow up, and time and again, I’d seen this young woman thrash and writhe in fear of something, then do what she must all the same. She knew how to walk through fire. I was confident she could do it again, and again if she must, and again. Each time more steely in her determination. Odd, though, how she saw herself as a coward, even while I saw her as the strongest person I’d ever known. Perhaps no hero sees herself as a hero, and that is part of the hero’s definition. It is humility that moves us to accomplish great feats.

Phone to my ear, I talked softly to her and told her about the anonymous comment left on my book review. The words were a jumble, full of typos, and the sentences at times nearly incoherent. But the overall message was clear. The book I had reviewed was The Emotionally Abused Woman: Overcoming Destructive Patterns and Reclaiming Yourself by Beverly Engel. I read the comment into the phone:

“i am a 24 year old mother of two.for years prior to me having children of my on i watch my mother get physically abused,i thought to myself why on earth would she stay.even as a 4 year old little girl i would cry with her and beg her to leave.after many more severe beatings and having to give up three out of the five of us to our dad she finally left... and even though after years she got us all back.i always told myself i would never go through that.i didn't relise that i would pick men that i could abuse.once i did relise this i started to pick men that abused me immediately i thought it must be my fault,i must be doing the samething my mother did that caused her to get beat so from 16 to 18 i stay with a boy that verbally abused me hit me and cheated until finally after giving birth to first child my daughter i found strength and left him for good something no one ever thought i would do only to go to the one man i thought would never hurt me the man i called my best friend he is five years older he had already lived with other women he said he loved me he could talk to me he acted like he respected me and what i did for a living..but two weeks after i moved in with him it began all of a sudden i'm bitches,i'm hoodrats the money that i make means nothing and when ever i feel like i have the strength to leave he pulls me back by acting like the reason we have problems is because of me i feel so traped not by him but by the retrants iv'e placed in my mind. i can't wait to go get this book i hope it can help me before its to late....”

We cannot be trapped by others. We can only be trapped by the restraints we place upon ourselves. I could hear the young woman’s breath catch over the line as she listened. The next sound I heard was the opening of a door.

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