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Journeying into the future means taking steps into the unknown

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Unsheltered, includes the story of a mother who suffers from fear and anxiety.

The author writes, “Willa believed in the power of worry.” I understand. For me, these emotional states are familiar companions. And, as with Kingsolver’s character, they blossomed fully into my life when I became a mother.

I want to deny it, but my life and my habits demonstrate that I do believe in the power of worry. I can recite the biblical admonition, “Be anxious for nothing” (Philippians 4:6), but quoting the verse has never turned off the churning in my stomach or calmed the pounding of my heart.

All three of my children have been frustrated by my fears. As they embraced varied thrills, I became practiced in the art of anxiety.

My youngest son never discovered a fear of water. During his toddler years, if traveling meant stopping at a hotel with a swimming pool, his lifejacket had to be securely fastened before leaving our room. He would walk (as steadily as his 2-year old gait permitted) toward the edge of the pool. Without breaking stride, and apparently with no notice that the ground beneath his feet was about to change from solid to liquid, he would simply step over the edge. If you expected him to emerge spluttering and screaming, you’d be mistaken. The ensuing splash delighted him. Pulling him out of the pool meant only that he’d do it again. I actually envied mothers of youngsters who wouldn’t go near the water’s edge.

In a similar way, my older son never discovered a fear of flying. He began his soaring efforts as soon as he could walk and climb. During one microsecond when my attention was diverted, he scaled our kitchen table and launched himself into the air. His brief flight to the floor cost him two teeth, but it didn’t deter him. He tried again from a picnic table in the back yard. That attempt employed wings he had fashioned from a cardboard box. He started flying in real airplanes when he was 10 years old. Since then, he has learned to fly a wide variety of aircraft, including the aerobatic sort that intentionally go upside down. He currently works as a pilot (although when he flies passengers or cargo, he does so right side up). During his off-hours, he still loves activities that include inverted flying and skydiving. For the sake of my nerves, he is not permitted to tell me about these adventures until he’s back on solid ground.

I’d like to say that my daughter takes after me with a more cautious approach toward life, but it wouldn’t be true. During her adolescent years, she developed an enthusiasm for snowboarding. That’s a sport where you strap your feet to a piece of wood and fling yourself off a mountaintop.

After college, she moved to Colorado for bigger mountains. When she talked about her experiences, I heard joy and excitement in her voice. I pictured the kind of slopes that pass for mountains in southern Michigan. When I visited her during a Colorado summer, she took me to see her favorite mountain. It took two gondola rides to reach the top (which was still snow covered in June). She regaled me with stories about thrills and near disasters. Apparently, risking life and limb was something she viewed as exciting and fun. I gulped and rejoiced that she was still alive.

Even today, my children’s exploits sometimes make me uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I’m proud of the adults they’ve become. I’ve learned to respect their decisions, even when I have to disguise my misgivings and force a smile. In truth, the activities that often seem so perilous to me involve training, planning, and taking appropriate safety precautions.

A reasonable amount of fear can be a good thing. It protects us. It helps us prepare. On the other hand, too much anxiety can keep us from learning how to swim through the sea of life, fly free from self-imposed limitations, and conquer mountains. Journeying into the future means taking steps into the unknown. A sensible path balances fear and confidence, risk and prudence. I’m still searching for it.

KAREN BELLENIR has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.