Keeping Out of the Cave of Phantoms
Affirmation: When I stay focused on the present moment, my life is richer and less stressful.
A trip looms in the future, a trip to another continent, a third world country. I know how lucky I am to have this opportunity and I am excited about it but if I am I not vigilant I walk into the “cave of phantoms” and it is both dark and frightening.
I am no stranger to fear and anxiety. I can clearly remember the first time it raised its ugly head and entered into my life. I was an older student returning to UNC to do a Masters in Social Work. I have never considered myself to be a gifted student. My accomplishments come more from a gift of perseverance and perhaps even the naive assumption that I can do anything if I decide to do it and stick to it. So, I took a bunch of baby steps to arrive in this Master’s program.
My first step was to sign up for a GRE review course. Other than the fee, there was nothing intimidating about it. I was simply going to see what I might learn. It was fun. So, I thought, “I’ll take the exam. Why not?” And, to my amazement I did pretty well. “Well, I might as well apply to a program.” I had a dear friend who had just gotten her MSW and the subject was of great interest to me. I filled in the application for the part time program and within a short period of time, I was accepted. I later learned they had hundreds of applications. They accepted 23 people and I was one of them. There I sat that first day with 22 other people all of whom seemed to have been in the field before. I had been a math major and a teacher. What was I doing here? But, I believed God had a plan for me. I didn’t have a clue what it was but I was willing to be His/Her tool and it appeared a door had opened and I chose to step through. It took me five years to complete the degree but I did it.
But, being back in school with all the tests, assignments and internships (62 credit hours) and final exams, took its toll on me. I would have days when I felt like I’d had ten cups of coffee but I hadn’t. I’d awaken shaking inside and all my tools that I’d developed over the years didn’t seem to help in anyway. I actually experienced several anxiety attacks but lucky for me, I was studying exactly what I was dealing with and so I could easily diagnose myself and get help. Since then, anxiety had visited me on (and luckily) off many times. I see it. I know it but so often, I can do nothing to alleviate it except to know, it will pass. Then, I saw a television commercial about the end of the world.
The rumor is the world is ending (again) when the Mayan calendar ends, December 21, 2012. The commercial was for retirement insurance and it pointed out that if the world was ending as predicted, you didn’t need insurance but just in case it isn’t, you might want to still be prepared.
I fully recognize that I am mortal. Besides being a cancer survivor and being an active part of both the Duke Cancer Patient Support and the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Advisory Boards, I was a Hospice patient care volunteer and did my first MSW internship with Hospice of Wake County. I lost my father when I was 36 and all of these factors have combined to create in me a heightened sense of awareness that I may be only one breath away from the next life. I try to keep that thought with me at all times for both myself and for my loved ones.
So, when the insurance commercial came on it really made an impact on me. I don’t know why perhaps it was simply the way it was portrayed; it was whimsical and silly but it also presented a very real possibility. We are spinning through space on one of billions of planets among billions of solar systems. We’ve all seen the disaster movies about comets hitting the earth, or the sun getting too close or too far or our axis slightly tilting and sending us all floating into outer space. It’s true. Any day now, the planet could implode or even more likely, we could die in a car crash or some other common accident.
If you ever get a chance, go to the Newseum in Washington, DC. It is six floors of everything pertaining to the news as it was and as we now know it. It’s filled with fascinating exhibits and interactive experiences. On the main floor is the antennas from the top of the south building of the World Trade Center and on the wall are the front pages of all the major newspapers announcing the events of September 11, 2001. There’s a reminder that we don’t have a clue what’s facing us from moment to moment, no less far out into the future.
The Buddhist tells us to “imagine the glass broken.” He reminds us that life as we know it is fragile and temporary. It’s not morbid. It brings us a greater realization of the preciousness of what we have. We need to treasure it.
Now, whenever anxiety arises I think only of the present moment. I completely let go of the unknown or perhaps dreaded future. Why should I be anxious or worry about something that may never take place. Not that I will necessarily die and my future will end but I can only plan for whatever it is I want to happen, after that my future, my days are in the hands of God. I haven’t got a clue what they will bring and because of that thought, I find myself at peace. The anxiety seeps away. I recall Shakespeare, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.” Yes, I may be here for another 30 years or more. The world may last for centuries to come but none of that is any concern of mine. The future is just that, a world unknown and I will not allow myself to be afraid of the phantoms I may never meet.