Face What You Fear the Most

This is what we were asked to mull over and discuss:

It’s been said that one should face what they are most afraid of.
What do you think of this idea?
Although it is one of the hardest things to do, great people generally do just that.

Reading it now, it seems pretty straight forward, although no slam dunk because each of us sitting in the circle had a brain injury. As for me? The moment the first line was spoken, I got sucked into a cascade of emotions, memories, frustration—flooded.  Everything else was drowned out. What I heard was this:

What are you afraid of more than anything else?
Can you face your fear?

Brain injury makes me tired, and when I’m tired, I cry. It’s just the way it is. I must have been tired the day this happened, or else the topic hit me like a ton of bricks. So I cried.

The more I thought, the more muddled I got. The fear? I knew what it was but not how to put it into words or give voice to it. Is knowing the same as being aware? Is awareness facing what you’re afraid of? And if so, why hasn’t “knowing” gotten me past my fear?

What about you? Do you also know only too well what you’re most afraid of? If so, chances are you can’t put it into words either, or don’t really want to. Sometimes I think silence keeps the fear at bay, or speaking its name aloud is tempting fate.

But I’m getting sidetracked.
I’m asking because I suspect that what most people are most afraid of comes from within themselves. So the ability to see one’s deepest fears, much less face them, requires awareness and introspection. Well, in the aftermath of a brain injury one of the most common challenges is an organic unawareness—the inability to self-observe. It’s a conundrum. Because of that unawareness we may not be able to fathom a feeling that is so existential, one that is, perhaps, at the heart of our daily struggle: finding who we are. And as long as we can’t clearly see that fear (no matter how hard we try) we won’t be able to face it. At least until we’ve internalized the need and habituated introspection.

When I look back at that day and the idea offered up for discussion, it seems obvious that it is much more complex than I realized at the time— because of our brain injuries. Maybe that’s why it freaked me out; why it struck such a tender chord. I knew I had to consider it outside the circle, alone, in my own time. That’s why I took it home. That’s why I’m writing this.

Let’s return to the question, “what do you think of this idea?” My answer could have been, “It sounds good to me. It also sounds like one of the hardest things to do [I don’t see myself among the ‘greats’], but it’s probably the only thing to do.”

Gian_Lorenzo_Bernini,_self-portrait_c1623 cropped-bigAt the same time, I’m left wondering what “facing” what you’re most afraid of actually looks like, how it works, and the purpose it serves. In my mind it’s not fear that holds me back; I think I’m held back by what it is I fear. I’m afraid of… well, I can’t find the right words. Now what?

Based on a quick online search (note: I didn’t check my sources), and with my own 2 cents added, here’s some (greatly simplified) advice:

Be Mindful: Recognize that your fear is standing in your way. Think about what happens when it does, how you feel, and your response.

Take Charge: It’s your life. Manage stress with music, meditation, exercise, or massage. Breathe in a regular rhythm to calm your system. Do whatever helps you keep the boogyman at bay.

Habituation: When you face the fear you get stronger and it gets easier. Practice living with it and see for yourself—it’s not impossible. There’s no need to worry about when it may come, if you know you can deal with it when it does.

Affirmation: Positive self-talk, repeatedly said out loud and confident.  “My life is in my hands.” “I am stronger than my fear.”  “I am worthy.” “I am happy being alive and being me.”

Last, but not least, if all else fails, do what I do—

Cry: [out with the bad], and

Smile: [there’s research showing that even a forced smile can improve one’s mood and reduce stress!]. Fake it ’til you make it.

The intense gaze illuminating this piece is a detail from Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s self-portrait (c. 1623) via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain, {{PD-1923}}. The painting can be seen here


A preening fish, a boy making waves, and other oddities of consciousness

An eclectic selection of pieces on consciousness, cognition, and brain injury

For years, I’ve been collecting articles that have fascinated (and distracted­) me–from the web, by email, and in newspapers. The ones I chose here are a mixed-bag, on a variety of subjects, and among my favorites. Enjoy!

Brain Injury and the Civil Right We Don’t Think About
Joseph J. Fins, The New York Times

“We now can anticipate that there are large numbers of people…who have the potential to communicate but are sequestered — indeed, segregated — in chronic care, isolated and abandoned by society.” (Fins, J.J.) See also:

Joseph J. Fins’ Rights Come to Mind: Brain Injury, Ethics and the Struggle for Consciousness
Arthur L. Caplan, Ph.D, Book review in Cerebrum

Rights Come to Mind is a wonderful book; perhaps the best book ever to emerge from the young field of neuroethics…. Like any provocative book, Fins’ work offers plenty to argue about…. I may well be wrong, but without this thoughtful, compassionate, and principled book, I would never have realized my obligation to worry about who is right.” (Caplan, A.L.)

The First Concussion Crisis: Head Injury and Evidence in Early American Football
E.M. Harrison, SM. American Journal of Public Health.

“The present Rugby game of football as played in this country is a very risky pastime, carrying nearly the same risk that a soldier [assumes] on the battle field. (1893, The New York Times)

Fish Have Feelings, Too: The Inner Lives Of Our “Underwater Cousins.”
Interview with Jonathan Balcombe by Terry Gross, NPR Fresh Air

“In his new bookBalcombe presents evidence that fish have a conscious awareness–or ‘sentience’–that allows them to experience pain, recognize individual humans and have memory.” (Gross, T.)

For the Boy Who Makes Waves
Joe Blair. The New York Times

“Can I, being alive at this time, love this boy? Can I listen to him? Can I be a good father to this boy?” (Blair, J.)

Science of Time: What makes our internal clock tick?
Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times

The interval of time that we perceive as now, “may help explain why attention might be the most important — and most fragile — part of our internal clocks.” (Healy, M.) It is also most likely to be altered by neurological illness or brain injury.

This Is Your Brain on Silence: Contrary to popular belief, peace and quiet is all about the noise in your head
Daniel A. Gross. Nautilus

“Freedom from noise and goal-directed tasks, it appears, unites the quiet without and within, allowing our conscious workspace to do its thing, to weave ourselves into the world, to discover where we fit in. That’s the power of silence.” (Gross, D.A.)

Striking a nerve: TBI up close and personal
Maria Romanas, MedPage Today

“A physician who suffered a severe head injury as a teenager pleads for a new approach to treatment and rehabilitation.” (Gever, J., MedPage Today)

Becoming Disabled: Roughly one in five Americans live with a disability. So where is our pride movement?

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, The New York Times

“Becoming disabled means moving from isolation to community, from ignorance to knowledge about who we are, from exclusion to access, and from shame to pride.” (Garland-Thomson, R.)

Last, but not least…

I am compelled to include this book by A.R. Luria, the “most significant and fertile neuropsychologist of his time.” (Oliver Sacks, from the Foreword). Luria was a prolific scholar and author of “classical science,” but this book is something else. It is, in his words, “romantic science”–the living reality of one patient, a soldier returning from World War II with severe brain injury.

The Man with a Shattered World: The History of a Brain Wound, by A. R. Luria

“It is a remarkable document, affecting in its simplicity, its pain, its inexorable determination.”  – Time

“The product of…two remarkable men, one a world authority on the brain, the other his unfortunate brain-damaged patient…a fascinating and valuable review of the strange but precise working of the brain for both the general reader and the scientist.”  – Library Journal

“Science became poetry.”  – Oliver Sacks