Monday, February 15, 2010

If You're Scared of a Cow

Over a bowl of oatmeal one morning, Sophia composed a song (sung to the tune of London Bridge is Falling Down):

Daddy will pick you up
Pick you up
Pick you up
Pick you up
Daddy will pick you up
If you’re scared of a cow.

She wasn’t just being silly, nor was this her typical morning tribute to Daddy…Sophia is terrified of cows. I’m not quite sure how it started. I think it has less to do with their heft and size than the fearsome sound of their lowing. My sister sent us a puzzle mat that had several buttons you could depress to hear the sound of an animal. Pushing the cow button immediately sent Sophia flying to the other end of the room. We tried some exposure therapy…Kevin or I holding her at a distance while the other pushed the button, but in the end we wound up putting the rug away until she outgrew her fear.

But so far she hasn’t. If we go somewhere new she’ll ask, apprehensively, if a cow will be there. And on the rare occasion that there is a cow—even an inanimate cow facsimile, such as the one you can pretend to milk at the local children’s museum—she will beg us to avoid it.

Sophia also has a fear of dogs. We are flanked, on either side, by neighbors with yippy dogs. Mostly harmless (one of them actually did bite the 14 year-old girl who mows our lawn) they’re brash, excitable, and bark their lungs out at Sophie (or a leaf caught in the wind, or their shadows, or my middle finger). So now every time we go out, Sophia makes a break from the house to the car, pleading, “The doggies won’t hurt you?”

This is something I can relate to. I am afraid of dogs. But unlike Sophia, who has never been attacked, the origin of my fear is quite clear (and justifiable) to me.

The first and most severe of attacks took place when I was in third grade. Jan, slow, overweight and outcast, sat behind me in homeroom. He invited the entire class to his birthday. Out of the 25 or so kids in that class, I was the only one who showed up. My mother dropped me off at a ramshackle ranch with a dirt yard and a gravel driveway. To the right, a large dog was chained to a stake in the ground and complained loudly upon my arrival. Jan was very pleased to see me. Together, we made a dent in the trayful of cupcakes his mother had baked, and I (a nerd in my own right) gave him a Little Professor calculator. With bruised pride, Jan told me that his dog was really dangerous, but he could pet him and did I want to see? (Even at eight, preserving his ego was more important to me than my own safety.) Sure, I did. I followed him outside and stood at what I figured was a safe distance. I must have miscalculated the length of the chain. The dog flew out from under Jan’s hand, which hung in the air, poised for petting.. He leapt on top of me, pinned me down and gnawed at the area above my right armpit. As in similar moments of crisis and great stress, everything slowed down. I was outside of myself, watching it happen: My own mouth opening to form a scream of terror. Jan’s mother, running out of the house to come pull the beast off of me. And what had Jan been doing? Screaming? Silently looking on? I don’t remember.

Ever since that day, I have not trusted dogs. I’ll cross the street to avoid them, ask my friends to put them away when I come to visit and scowl at those who let their mutts off leash in the park where I run. So it is hard for me to say whether my own tensing and hyperarousal has provoked fear in Sophia. Or if, independent of my own reaction, she has drawn her own conclusions about the trustworthiness of dogs. In an effort to ally her fears, I have become counter-phobic. I pet dogs. I say how cute they are. I point to their wagging tails and other indicators of friendliness. But, despite these efforts she retreats behind the safety of my thighs whenever there is a dog in our midst.

I have to wonder, if I was just honest about my fear, would she be as afraid? Is it my duplicity…or the fear itself that fuels her anxiety?

How does fear form? How do we come to understand that the world is a dangerous place—hazards at every turn. Car accidents. Poisons under the sink. Cows that moo. Dogs that bite. Is it a sudden confrontation with our mortality, our vulnerability? What provokes it? Early traumatic experience? Taking clues from parental anxieties?

Fear is anticipatory. It is of what might happen, not what is. Not even of what was.

It is a movement, then, from living in the moment, to a future orientation where bad things might happen? Perhaps the development of fear relates to an understanding of the linearity of time. Sophie often says “last week” for the past…whether something occurred months, weeks, or days ago. But I know she’s “getting it” that some things DID happen, that other things WILL happen. Those things that WILL happen are unknowns. She likes rehashing the past, or having me recount something that has happened, affirming her memory of the event, deriving comfort from the familiar.

But the future looms large and uncertain.

Which begs the question: Why does it have to be a dark future? Why can’t it be a happy future? Why doesn’t Sophia perceive a cow’s moo or a dog’s bark to be an expression of their essence, of their joy, as she does the roar of a lion or the hiss of a snake?

A friend recently postulated that perhaps death could be the best thing that happens to us.

Fear by its nature is irrational. Sometimes its “justified,” rooted in past experience and validated by neurotic parents and we can arrive at a satisfying explanation.

But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes you’re just afraid of a cow. Whether it’s evil, good, or none of the above.

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