The lanes have been icy and slick this past week and there have been some mornings that I missed my usual walk because I was fearful of slipping. Fear of falling makes me over-cautious. I find myself contracting my muscles, creeping along carefully, head down, shoulders hunched, watching for icy patches, looking at the ground instead of striding out confidently and gazing at the countryside around me. I start thinking about what can happen to people my age when they break hips and that thought makes me contract even more. On days like that, a walk is no fun. Better to come home, make a cup of tea and curl up with a good book.
But the image of that contracted self niggles at me. After a while, I have to put down my book and think about it.
The truth is, I believe, that at a psychic level most of us spend our whole lives in a similarly contracted state. Fear of falling makes us cautious. The possibility of calamity narrows our vision. It makes us shrivel up, huddle into ourselves, vainly seeking comfort by curling up in a ball, like a hedgehog, rather than remaining fully open to everything that is around us and open to all the uncertainties of the next moment.
When you think about it, most of us are afraid, most of the time, though often not consciously so. We fear illness, we fear death, we fear the unknown future. The great mystery that is life scares most of us rigid. So we huddle into the familiar—into our relationships, our work, our routines, our library books and movies: always seeking comfort. I’ve heard it called existential angst. Just to be alive is scary if you let yourself really face life—and death—full-on. So most of us, most of the time, distract ourselves from existential angst and our deep-seated fear of the unknown and what might happen in our personal—or planetary—future. We attempt to insulate ourselves in any way we can think of. Like seeking certainty where there really is none by following, blindly, the precepts and prescriptions of organized religion or other off-the-peg belief systems. In the same way that we seal up cracks in our houses so that no cold draught may enter, we fill up all the spaces in our consciousness into which fear may possibly creep. Thus we put iPods in our ears, jabber away on our cell phones, stay busy with our computers, our text messages, our social lives, our work, the TV…anything to stop ourselves from thinking too hard about all the unknowns that scare us and all the question marks hanging over us as individuals and as what may well be a doomed species.
The truth is that no matter how much we try to kid ourselves, there are no guarantees, no escapes and no safe places. I think that is what Christ meant when he said “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head" (Matthew 8:20) We humans are stuck with our existential dilemma: the dilemma of knowing enough to be scared of the future but not enough to be able to unravel the Great Mystery. All we can do is take a deep breath, step forward and say "yes" to it.
Opening up to whatever may happen, opening up to the unknown future, saying "yes" to life—no matter what—is, I believe, the ultimate spiritual challenge. And it is every bit as difficult to do as striding confidently down an icy lane on a winter morning, looking up and out at the world instead of creeping along, staring anxiously down at one's boots.