Essays and poetry Featured In Your Voice Student Productions

Fear and Loathing

The Red Badge Project Student Productions

By Michael Limner


 

At this point in my life, that I can immediately recall, I don’t fear anything. As a child, I was reared in a family where corporeal punishment was not only the norm, but considered a required practice. As a result of that upbringing I entered the world as a young adult in constant fear of some inevitable form of retribution. To offset this anxiety, I put forth a bold face and tried to act tough, hoping people would think twice about any attack upon my person; physically or verbally. Looking back on that young man now, I realize how comical an appearance that faux-tough exterior appeared to an observer. A one hundred and thirty-five pound, skinny white kid walking around affecting the persona of invincibility. It’s a wonder that I didn’t get my ass kicked more often than actual. Most reasonable people probably realized what was behind that indomitable exterior. Fear. And they probably pitied me. Today I am ashamed of the way I acted as a young man.

It is amusing to me when the public lauds the war veteran as the brave, conquering hero. When in reality, we were all a bunch of scared kids. And we conquered nothing. After surviving a war, through no fault of my own, the fear of death diminished but I then carried the fear that I would be found out. That underneath that bold exterior I had acquired through military experience, you would discover that I was still just a frightened little boy. I have been paralyzed with fear. In an attempt to conquer that internal fear I took up the practice of a martial art. After about a year of rigorous training in that endeavor I forgot about fighting, or having to fight, and began to concentrate on the physical perfection of the art and my own proficiency thereof. I now refuse to live in fear. However, it could be that, with the benefit of martial training, I have learned to conduct myself in manner that people no longer want to kick my ass.

By chance I had settled on an art that discouraged competition in favor of improvement of the self mentally and physically. If it had been a competitive art, I might have quit after the first couple of times I got whipped. As it was, through years of dedicated training, under several different masters, I became formidable. The discipline discouraged fighting but I almost looked forward to having to defend myself. If only to confirm that the training was realistically valuable. There were a couple of times over the years that I thought I would have to fight, viewing an actual physical confrontation as simply more training. But those times I stepped forward believing a fight was imminent the other person backed down. I didn’t act tough, only ready. Perhaps that was what caused the others to reconsider. That I didn’t display fear. I figured that if I got beaten, I probably deserved it for some reason. Through training I had learned to disassociate pain so the fear of being battered and bruised was not concerning. Only maybe public humiliation and the loss of some teeth.

I am not a timid person. However, a hold-over from war experience, a brief career in law enforcement, and years of martial training have made me continually hyper-vigilant. I don’t like crowds and don’t like people behind me. I don’t like being in rooms over-capacity with people. I don’t like strangers touching me or brushing against me and avoid shaking hands. It is a highly unsanitary custom anyway. To me a polite bow is a more appropriate greeting. Whenever I am in public I need to be in visual command of all the entries and exits. I have been criticized frequently for these traits, at times by professionals. But I am the man I created and I am comfortable with that. You dive into the mosh if you choose, that is no concern of mine. And it is no concern of yours if I choose not to. Before martial training I at times suffered from anxiety episodes, sometimes without a discernable cause. After years of training I no longer suffer from that previous anxiety, but a lot of that may be because I have learned to avoid situations that might tend to put me on my guard. To me that seems reasonable and it seems unreasonable to me if you don’t.

There was this one time though, when I was on a bicycle tour with twenty-five-hundred of my closest friends, that I almost completely lost my cool. A few of the towns we camped in set up bandstands in a public area and provided live music for the tour. At these gatherings I avoided the crowd in front of the bandstand and remained on the periphery to listen to the music. Several in my group chided me for this practice of not being an engaging member of the social order. I.e., dancing in the pit.

On the tour route was the Oregon Trails Museum outside of Bend, Oregon. When the small group that I was riding with arrived at the museum there were only a few people ahead of us inside the building. We were enjoying being inside in the air-conditioning for a while, and were taking our time perusing the exhibits. While we dawdled there, a large group came in behind us and began pressing along the winding “trails” through the exhibits faster than our group. The group ahead of us was slower because of a docent lecture and the newly arriving group began to push us against the group ahead. I became engulfed within a mass of sweating human flesh. My own flesh began to crawl and I felt a mounting anxiety. I felt suffocated within the plethora of fetid human breath. The cacophony of excited voices reverberating from the ceiling of the large building became deafening to the point that it interfered with my sorting of sensory input. I searched for an exit from the mosh but could not find one short of crawling over the exhibits. My anxiety increased to the point that I began to sweat through my chilled sweat and I was near panic. I felt the strongest urge to start indiscriminately throwing people—something at which I am proficient—to relieve the press of people around me. I wanted to hurt people to get them away from me. I managed to remain rational enough to know that I couldn’t do that, randomly throw strangers to the floor.

Searching the room frantically, I saw a nearby emergency exit sign beyond a Conestoga. Stepping out of the tour lane, I ducked underneath the barrier rope and headed directly for the exit. This required climbing over a faux campfire, squatting beneath a stuffed long-horn bull, and crawling underneath the Conestoga wagon to reach the exit. Followed by shouting from the people behind me. Busting through the exit door I set off an alarm. Still in a near panic, I ran to my bicycle, and at a rapid pace regained the highway. The others in my group had no idea what had happened to me. I didn’t reconnect with them until camp that night. There was a psychiatrist in our group, and after prodding from the others about my disappearance earlier that day, I grudgingly told them what had happened to me. The psychiatrist started calling me a people-phobe. A diagnosis I have been unable to find in the DSM-5.

Before the Oregon Trails Museum episode I didn’t like crowds, now I avoid them like the plague. When the covid pandemic restrictions were implemented, my life-style changed little. It’s not that I fear what others might do to me in pressured situations. Rather what I might do.

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