May 29, 2011
Considering the change process whether in therapy or spiritual formation inevitably leads to serious thinking about the experience of fear. In the last few months I have thought frequently about the impact of fear in the human change process. Then, as frequently happens in the way I experience “the world as text” an experience with Miss Annie provided an insight that I would like to explore with you.
Miss Annie (aka Fraulein Freud, Therapist Cat Extraordinaire) prefers to rest from her clinic work in a high perch near a window. One of her favorite “high” perches is in the garage. A friend of mine organized this particular perch for her shortly after Miss Annie came to live with me. Annie likes it principally because of its height and the size of the window. She also likes it because the perch itself is “upholstered” with a soft worn bathroom rug.
Miss Annie reaches this special perch in three steps: first, a jump from the garage floor to the potting table, then a second jump from the top of the potting table to the top of the low bookcase, then a third jump from the low bookcase to the top of the high book case in front of the garage window. Annie was quite confident regarding the first two jumps, but was initially somewhat hesitant concerning the third. In order to encourage her, our friend constructed a ramp from Styrofoam planks. Annie quickly learned to walk her “runway” (stylishly, of course) from the lower bookcase to the high one. She also developed a pattern in which she stopped, coming and going, to sharpen her claws on the Styrofoam planks and to provide ample time for any available audience to admire her elegant self.
When I returned from vacation, Annie was quite happy to see me and greeted me warmly. I soon noticed, however that her collar and tags were missing. Since Annie had not had an outdoor adventure in my absence, this loss seemed strange. Even more mysterious, however, was Miss A’s new reaction to the garage. When I attempted to place her on her perch in the garage, she growled at me and inserted her claws in my shirt (and in my shoulder). When I placed her on the floor and attempted to comfort her, she ran to hide under the bed. Annie, the Confident Elegant Miss Annie—Annie, the Therapist Cat Extraordinaire—had become afraid. She had in fact come quite close to a feline panic attack when confronted with a once favorite place. What in the world had happened?
Some garage detective work soon revealed the remains of an accident. Annie’s “runway” (all of the Styrofoam planks) was on the garage floor. One was broken, and all were tangled with the rug which was on the floor as well. Underneath the runway planks and rug lay Miss Annie’s breakaway collar and her tags. There were no witnesses, of course, but circumstantial evidence indicated that while walking her “runway” one of the planks had given way under Annie (she’s a big girl). When she started to fall Annie had likely grasped the rug with her claws. The rug in turn had slipped from the perch and fallen down with the planks, possibly on Annie’s head. For one of the few times in her life, Miss Annie may have experienced great difficulty in landing on her feet. In the struggle to regain her balance and to escape the smothering folds of the rug, it appeared that Miss Annie had broken her collar, then, badly frightened by the fall and the accompanying rain of debris, had escaped and fled the scene, planning never to return to the garage, no matter my thoughts about the matter.
The friend who had helped construct Annie’s favorite perch came to lunch. I explained my admittedly theoretical reconstruction of the scene and described Miss Annie’s panicked reaction. “You couldn’t help that,” our friend said. “but she may be afraid for a long time; she may never like the garage perch again. I don’t know what you can do about that.” Options for repair of the ramp were straightforward. Dealing with Miss Annie’s fear was less so. If the world is text, I thought, then what does this mean?
Our friend was correct in one basic sense. All of us, including Miss Annie, have life experiences that result in fear. While we can learn to make ourselves less vulnerable to harm, we cannot change life in ways that safe-proof our journey. What then do we do with our fear? Simply live with it? If this is the only option, then why in so many places in the biblical text does God instruct his people NOT to be afraid?
Could I help Miss Annie NOT be afraid? What if Miss Annie did not want a fear-reduction program but wanted only the freedom to avoid forever entering the garage again? But after a time in which I considered some of the parallels between Miss Annie, myself, and some of my clients, I devised a plan.
More next week on the plan and our progress (Miss Annie’s and mine).
Meanwhile, thinking with you about the comment Jesus made to his disciples: he told them plainly that in their lifetimes they would have trouble (John 16:33). He also told them plainly not to be troubled or afraid (John 14:27). But he also pointed out that the peace he would give them was something different than “the peace the world gives (Jn. 14:27).”
What can we understand about the human experience of fear? And does seeking to live as a follower of Jesus change the human experience of fear, or does it change our capacity to manage fear, or both?
See you next week.