The fear of happiness is one of those fears that can make my eyes roll. Come on. Really? Being afraid of feeling happy?
And yet, a curious thing has happened. It started with my pregnancy, with my staying still and settling down. When times are tough (e.g. when I’m fighting with my husband or worried about money), I’m not afraid. I’m too busy dealing. When things are good, when I feel an exuberance of love for my husband, when I hold my baby’s strong and smart body, when I sit down after a good meal and think, life is good, fear rears its monstrous noggin. Waves of anxiety wash out heart beats. I have to regulate my breath. What if something happens? What if something terrible happens?
The fear is worse in moments when I am most tempted to acknowledge my satisfaction with things. The fear is worse when I feel the most happy.
A weeks ago, I came across this passage in Jose Saramago’s The Double:
He arrived in the late afternoon, parked the car outside the door of the apartment building, and then, nimble, lithe, and in the best of moods, … walked up the stairs as lightly as an adolescent, not even noticing the weight of his suitcase … and he very nearly danced into his apartment. In accordance with the traditional conventions of the literary genre known in Portuguese as the romance, or novel, and which will continue to be called thus until someone comes up with a term more in keeping with its current configuration, this cheery description, organized as a simple sequence of narrative events in which, quite deliberately, not a single negative note was struck, would be cunningly placed there in preparation for a complete contrast, which, depending on the writer’s intentions, could be dramatic, brutal, or terrifying, for example, a murder victim lying on the floor in a pool of blood, a convention of souls from the next world, a swarm of furious drones i heat who mistake the history teacher [the hero] for a queen bee, or, worse still, all of this combined into a single nightmare, for, as has been demonstrated ad nauseam, the imagination of the Western novelist knows no limits, or rather, it hasn’t since the days of the aforementioned Homer, who, when one thinks about it, was the first novelist.
It’s true, the Western novelist knows no limits, and unfortunately (for me) my instinct for story was oozing into my small, domestic life.
And I don’t think this literary dread is contained to the writer. If you watch read books, if you hear/tell stories, if you watch movies at all, you know this ancient story structure. The formula is natural. It is the hero’s archetypal journey.
So, here I was, anticipating my life’s next plot twist, as if I were a helpless character in someone’s dramatic story.
Irrational, a bit crazy, but even after seeing all this, I couldn’t shake the anxiety. In fact, it got worse.
I’ve read that in nightmares it’s good to turn and face the monster/killer/animal pursuing you. It’s helpful to turn and look them in the awful face and say their name. Call them out. Ask them what they want.
So, two days ago, as ridiculous as it felt, I said my fears out loud. I told my husband I was afraid I would die or he would die or something would happen to little Henry. I felt silly. My fear felt closer and worse. He just hugged me and I felt like I’d made a mistake in saying anything at all.
Then I slept on it. I dreamed that an important person died and I attended that person’s funeral. It felt real and very sad, but by the end of the dream, I had already started to heal, and I woke up to this renewed understanding of that old cliche, that death is what makes life so sweet, so joyous, so poignant and valuable.
I kid you not, I felt better and I feel better. I’ll admit, I feel a little self-conscience posting this at all, but it felt so important, when I realized it. That bad things may happen, in fact, some bad things will probably happen, but for now, things are good, and if I see a pair of stairs, I will walk up them nimble, lithe, and in the best of moods.