I asked her, “Why do you always turn on the lights in the middle of the night, when you get up and walk around in your home?”
She answered me with the words I knew she would say, “So that I can see where I am going.”
I wanted to answer her right then. To tell her that she had not said anything. But I didn’t. Instead, I thought for a moment, and decided to ask her another question. “Why do you need the lights on to see where you are going in your own home? Don’t you know where everything is? Can’t you find your way through your own home in the dark?”
She looked at me as if the question I’d just asked didn’t even deserve an answer. As if to say that everyone knows you turn the lights on in the dark so you won’t trip on anything. So you won’t step on anything. So you want run into anything. So there can be no accidents as you walk through your home in the middle of the night. “Now, you’re just being stupid,” was all she said.
“No,” I responded, trying not to laugh. She’d missed completely what I was trying to say. I’d pretty much known she would. Most people would. They think in such set ways. I’ve learned, over the years of my life, that almost everyone has learned that one, well-worn path through life. That one almost universal way of thinking. And they can’t imagine, really, anything outside that. Anything beyond that.
I used to get angry about that. I used to get so frustrated. Because I’d explain to people, very carefully, what I saw. What I knew. And they’d always look at me like I was an idiot that didn’t know a thing. And they’d always say, “But, you can’t live that way!” But, I don’t get angry about that any more. And I’m learning not to let it frustrate me.
Instead, it makes me very sad. It makes my heart ache. And my soul cry tears of pain. To know that so many people are so very set in their ways that they can’t imagine anything else. Can’t imagine any other way. And that to them, any other way is just flat wrong.
I thought of asking her, “You turn on the lamp that’s right next to the bed when you get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, don’t you?” But I didn’t. I knew from her answer, and the way she had behaved, that she did. I didn’t need to ask. So, I thought a bit more. And asked another question, “How do you get across the living room to the light switch that’s all the way across the room in the dark? Carry a flashlight?”
“No, silly. I walk very carefully through the room to the light.”
“So you cross the room without any lights on at all?”
“Yes, silly. I have to. That’s the only way to get to the lights to turn them on.”
She still didn’t get it. Still couldn’t figure out what I was asking her. “So, how do you get across the room in the dark, without running into anything, or tripping on anything, or stepping on anything?”
“I walk slowly, and carefully. And feel my way along.” There was that look again. The one that said I was an idiot. The one that said everyone, everywhere, knew the answer to the question I had asked.
“So, you do walk across the room in the dark when you have no other choice?”
“Yes, silly! Doesn’t everybody?” She rolled her eyes. I thought I was going to die of laughter. It took everything I’d learned to keep from cracking up. I couldn’t do that, you know. Crack up. Not in front of her anyway. All I’d accomplish by laughing would be to get her angry with me. And I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do my best to explain to her what I’d asked in the first place.
“But isn’t is scary to walk across the room in the dark? When you can’t see where you’re going? Even if it is your room, and you know where everything is?”
“A little bit. But what else can you do? The light’s across the room.”
“I don’t know. Maybe you should keep a flashlight next to the bed, so you can use that to navigate your house in the dark?” It was a planned question. I knew exactly what I was asking.
“That would be overkill, wouldn’t it? I don’t need a flashlight to cross that room. I know where the light switch is. I know where the furniture is. All I have to worry about are things that are little and can move, and get left in the floor between me and the light switch. Get a flashlight. Why?”
“So you can see where you are going? Right?”
“What are you trying to ask, you silly man?” She’d had enough of my little game. She’d realized I was playing a game. Trying to guide her to the real meaning of the first question I’d asked.
“Are you afraid of the dark?”
“Yes. I’m afraid of the dark. Isn’t everyone? Well.. Almost everyone?”
I smiled. “I’m not. Afraid of the dark, that is.”
“Oh, come on. I bet you inch your way around a room in the dark just like me.” She shook her head. “You’re afraid of the dark too. Just like me.”
I smiled. And then I answered her, “I’m not. Not afraid of the dark, that is. But I do admit that I’m afraid of what’s in the dark that I can’t see. Like, maybe one of the cats had a hairball right there on the floor, and I can’t see it in the dark. And I’m afraid I’ll step on it. Have you ever stepped on a hairball in the dark. Yuck. It’s an awful feeling.”
She laughed at that. “But if you turned on the light, you could see that. And it wouldn’t happen.”
“True. And I do turn on the light so I won’t step on such things. But that doesn’t mean I’m afraid of the dark, does it? It just means I’m afraid of what I can’t see in the dark.”
She laughed pretty good at that one. And sighed. “You and your precise use of the language.” Then she smiled at me. “OK. Just for you. I’m not really afraid of the dark either. I’m just afraid of what’s hidden in the dark that I can’t see.”
I smiled. It had taken a while. And I knew there was a long way to go. But I had promised myself I’d help her find a way to face her fear of the unknown. Her fear of the things she couldn’t control.
It had taken me decades to learn that part of life. To become familiar with my own fear of the unknown. To learn to face it, and accept it. And look forward to the adventure of exploring, just to see what I might find. I wanted very much for her to learn about the real adventure that life is. The simply joy of exploring life. Of walking into the unknown. Just to see what’s there.
I wanted her to learn, as I had learned, that fear is just another thing we feel. And we shouldn’t let it tell us how to live. We should decide how to live for ourselves, and recognize that fear is just a feeling. Like laughter. Like smiles. Like joy. Like happiness. And frustration. And anger. It’s just fear. Just another feeling.
And on that day, when I asked her about walking around her home in the dark, I’d helped her take the first step in learning just that. I truly hoped that I could help her on that journey to learn about the things that she’d let fear do to her.
And I knew too, that I’d have to continue my own journey down the path of accepting that I live with fear, and that it’s OK to be afraid of the unknown. Of the things I can’t see. That such fear is a normal thing. And then to walk into the unknown anyway, just to see what’s there.