~ Dublin, Ireland ~ ca. 1900 ~
from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
by James Joyce
In Little Women Next Door, by Sheila Solomon Kass: The shy cautious narrator, Susan, is watching the bold Alcott kids in admiration and envy as they climb a tall tree and swing from the branches. Watching Louisa May, Susan thinks to herself, "She seemed to know no fear. Her face was glowing with joy. . . I didn't care to tell them all how afeared I was of heights. . . She's braver than I am, I thought. I couldn't explain it. I wished I was different. . . . How did it happen that I was born scared? And they were born brave?" (50).
In Saffy's Angel, by Hilary McKay: The brother, Indigo, is reading a book about the polar explorers: "Nobody Indigo knew had such adventures. . . . They were none of them as strong as steel and brave as tigers, and the least strong and brave of all of them (as Indigo knew only too well) was Indigo himself. Indigo thought about it, and it seemed to him that he had been born afraid of almost everything. He made a list. He wrote down on a piece of paper all the things that frightened him most, and he set about to cure himself" (24).
I wonder what's the odds that I would come across two such similar thoughts in two such different stories? Did these authors create these characters to help "kids" like me deal with their inner coward? Is being "born afraid" (and carrying that cowardice with you into your adult life) a typical childhood worry that authors of adolescent fiction deal with in their novels? It has usually seemed the opposite -- that the kids are all so remarkably fearless, like Nancy Drew and Jo March and the Melendys and Harry Potter & his precocious friends.
But, now that I think about it, maybe I wasn't born afraid. I can't recall being either especially brave or especially cowardly as a kid. Maybe I was just somewhere in between; maybe I was just -- could it be? --normal!
I guess I was fearful of my swimming lessons at age 5 and fearful of my mother's disapproval by age 10 or so. And some real fear set in at age 15 when I took drivers' ed and saw those horrible movies and then had to actually drive a car and be filled forever with the anguish that I would cause another's death (therein lies the root of all my driving anxiety; and also the explanation for why I've never suffered from a fear of flying, i.e., because I'm not the one in the driver's seat, not the one responsible for all those other lives). Fear of driving was soon followed by fear of sex and fear of standing up for myself; and, before I knew it, I had carried all that anxiety from my teens right into my adulthood.
Maybe its still not too late to be brave like Louisa May Alcott / Jo March, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and Stephen Dedalus, who names his only weapons, "the only arms I allow myself to use -- silence, exile, and cunning" -- and then declares: "You made me confess the fears I have. But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too. . . . I will take the risk" (247, from my very old edition of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce).
Whatever Stephen says, I am intrigued by the possibility that, in manner of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, the declamation of his positive mantra is enough to increase his courage and confidence -- and nearly enough to convince his orbital frontal cortex that indeed he is not afraid. He enumerates the very things he fears the most and, by denouncing, conquers them. You know, it just might work.
Long live Irish lit and neuro - psychology!