THE GURU NEXT DOOR
We humans love our spooky stories. Like moths to the flame, we can't resist the spine-tingling scariness of a good legend, myth or bugaboo. Here in New Jersey, our history is steeped in all manner of creepy, ghostly, hobgoblin tales. As you're coasting down south on the Garden State Parkway, watch out for the Jersey Devil around Exit 69! As legend has it, this cloven-hooved creature has been roaming the Pine Barrens in search of little children for lunch for hundreds of years! OOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHH!!!!! Scaaaaaaaary!
When you were a child, were you afraid of creatures that might be hiding under your bed? Or in the closet? Did your parents always have to leave the night light on because you were afraid of the dark? What other bogeymen (and women) populated your life? Characters from scary movies? Slimy squirmy beings under the sea? Creepy, crawlies that might scoot up your pants or down your back in the woods?
But then you grew up. You left childish things behind. Your toys, tricycle, two-wheeler with the training wheels, your Radio Flyer wagon, blocks and books — you name it — have all evaporated into the past for the most part. Along with the little kid you used to be. Along with so many childhood illusions that have since been brought into focus.And those childhood fears, those bogeypeople that populated the dark side of your childish mind — those are all gone too, right?
Maybe not. A lot of us have blossomed quite nicely into adulthood with many of our childish fears intact. We still shiver a little bit when our bare feet hit the floor in the middle of the night. We still get freaked out about the unseen creatures in our world that might suddenly grab us. Or those skittering insects that might infest our lives. We have our own crew of Jersey or New York or Pennsylvania devils that roam the dark corridors of our minds.
Let me just say that I appreciate the fun in scariness. Although I'm not a fan of scary movies, I can't seem to go through a Sunday night without watching True Blood. I get it that it's fun to be caught off guard when someone pops out from behind a tree in the woods (you know who you are) or sneaks up behind you so you jump out of your skin.
But it's not fun is to be scared when you don't want to be. When fear puts a serious dent in your mood, or prevents you from doing things you'd love to do if you weren't afraid. There's a big difference between being momentarily startled or thrillingly titillated by things that go bump in the night - and having a lifelong fear of the dark. One is adrenalin; the other dampens our happiness and sense of well-being.
So let's put those devils to work. What can we learn from them?
Take a lesson from The Jersey Devil
Spooky legends like The Jersey Devil can be helpful in understanding a little more about the nature of fear. It's a lot scarier to think about some amorphous creature (aka, your greatest fear) wandering the backwoods searching for prey, than it is to actually be face to face with it. With all due respect to the JD, when we imagine it stalking us, it may bring terror to our hearts, but when we turn around and see it standing before us, terror may evaporate — self-preservation kicks in.
In horror movies, people always seem to resort to screaming first and then running through the woods looking backwards, where they are bound to trip on a tree root and fall to the ground, then get immediately clawed to death or eaten alive. Come on! it's just a bird/dog/dragon combo with a lot of bad press. Stare the sucker down. Pick up a limb and club it to death. Shriek like a girl and unleash your pepper spray with both barrels!
That's silly, I know. But the point is that there is a huge difference between imagining scary situations and actually being in the situation. Fear of bad things happening is based upon believing that we will be a certain way if that thing were to materialize — both in how we act and feel. The truth is we don't really know how we would act. We don't really know how we would feel. It depends on the situation. That's not a problem in and of itself. The problem arises when we believe we will have to experience some form of unhappiness, whether it be fear, terror, sadness, victimization, helplessness and that we'll act in such a way that would be bad for our health and happiness.
What if you thought of all your fears as if they were legends? Instead of imagining them as some amorphous creations with the power to defeat you and make you unhappy, look at them for what they really are. Separate the fact from the fiction.
Be scared on your own terms
Fear is a wide-ranging emotion that varies in intensity and manifestation. We may be afraid of things we see, think or feel; things that actually happen or we imagine will happen; things about ourselves or others. Fear can freeze us in our tracks or in our lives, or pass over us like a shadow. It can be as debilitating as a fear of open spaces resulting in the inability to leave the house or as glancing as a slightly squeamish feeling when we spy a mouse scurrying along the baseboard.
But regardless of what our fears are, we don't have to be stuck with them. We can understand the inner workings of our own fears by looking at the beliefs behind them, especially the belief that fear happens to us — that things by their very nature make us afraid. Think about the implications of that. If it were true, everyone would react to similar situations in the same way. The whole world would be standing on chairs when a mouse passes by. No one would climb mountains because we would all be afraid of heights. No one would ever go into the woods, or turn the lights out at night, or fly on a plane. There would be no actors because everyone would have stage fright. There would be no surgeons because everyone would faint at the sight of blood.
Obviously, that isn't the case. Nothing can make us fearful. Fear is personal. If we are afraid, we each have our very own reasons. Even people who are afraid of the same thing may have different reasons for being afraid. For example, I may be afraid of heights because I believe I might jump. You may be afraid of heights because you're afraid you'll fall. I may be afraid of mice because I am afraid of getting bitten; you may be afraid of mice because you are afraid of getting a disease.
To stop being afraid, we can see all our bogeymen, past and present, as the illusion they really are — propped up by own beliefs. Like the scary façade of a haunted house and the creatures within, we can look behind them and see them for what they really are — representations of what we believe can make us feel bad.
So if you're passing through the Pine Barrens, have a good scare. But remember, without your imagination -— without your beliefs — there would be no Jersey Devil. No devils at all.
For more information about The Jersey Devil, read New Jersey Curiosities, 2nd: Quirky Characters, Roadside Oddities & Other Offbeat Stuff (Curiosities Series) - by Peter Genovese and see www.elktownship.com.