As I’ve written, I’m housesitting for my parents in rural Maryland while they’re in Florida for the winter. When I’m not driving back into Washington, D.C., to see friends, days pass without human interaction.
But the solitude isn’t what’s getting to me. It’s the silence, particularly at night.
The house is on a farm at the end of a mile-long dirt road. It’s a 20-minute drive outside of town, “town” being La Plata, which has a population of barely over 9,000.
Living in D.C. for the past 12 years, I’ve been rocked to sleep by the sound of roommates, ambulances, and drunk people in the alley.
Out here, there’s just empty, mind-bending silence and the occasional gunshot. The other night someone fired off a few semi-automatic rounds across the field from the house. I picked up a 12-gauge shotgun and peered into the darkness for a good 15 minutes.
I’m trying to enjoy being surrounded by the forest as it prepares for spring, and during the day I do. My mother’s side of the family has owned this land since 1849. It’s not as obviously gorgeous as the mountains out West, but there’s beauty if you look for it.
Most nights, though, as soon as the sky fades to black, I imagine someone breaking into the house. Images from TV murder mysteries fill my mind. I listen into the silence, imagining the sound of glass breaking or a door being kicked in. I go up to my room, lock the door, and watch Netflix with that shotgun next to my bed.
I know the odds of someone burglarizing a house this far out in the woods are low. But when we’re triggered into intense emotions, rational thinking is beside the point.
So far, what I’ve been able to do is bring attention to the fear. I’ve noticed that my shoulders and neck tense up as if something frightening is right behind me. The last thing I want to do is get out of bed to check downstairs.
Based on my journey working with other emotions, like loneliness and grief, the next step is to accept that I’m afraid. But, so far, all I feel is ashamed. Once the stories about murders and break-ins fade away, I think things like, I’m 34 years old, I shouldn’t be afraid. Or, I should be a man like my dad who seems to never be afraid.
“Shoulds” are a dead giveaway that we’re fighting reality. When we think we should or shouldn’t be a certain way, we’re trying to deny who we really are in this moment.
The German psychoanalysis Karen Horney called this the “tyranny of the shoulds.” It really does seem like a tyrannical leader in the mind takes the steering wheel and won’t let go. There’s a rigidity to the “shoulds.” We are either this or that, good or bad, strong or weak.
But the part of me that’s afraid needs to be seen and held with compassion—just like a frightened child. If I keep denying that I’m afraid by wishing I wasn’t, that part will keep being afraid because it doesn’t trust the other parts of me. It will keep taking over and causing me to freeze up.
Thank God for my meditation practice, which has developed the muscle memory in my mind to watch out for “shoulds.”
“Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better,” writes the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. “It’s about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are. That’s what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest.”
I’m curious about my fear, but befriending it sounds so lame. Who wants to be friends with someone who’s afraid of the dark like a little kid?
I’m not there yet. But at least I know where my edge is, and I’ve come to trust that when I step towards my edge rather than away from it, good things tend to happen.
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