Burden of aging means facing fears

Thursday, April 7, 2005

I always remember my father as a fearless man. This was especially so when it came to anything having to do with horses. The last time we rode together was when we were trying out two young colts that he had raised on his farm.

He was offering them to me -- a gift of my Missouri heritage to bring back to California. Taking a gallop around the farm was an activity that had occupied many hours of our shared history.

But on this last time, my father, now in his 70s, was unusually cautious, uncharacteristically requesting that we walk the young horses who were busy spooking at their own shadows.

He admitted that he was afraid of falling. If you had known my father, you would know how shocking this request sounded. To all who knew him, he was a man who often optimized the old country saying: "He was rode hard and put up wet."

It was the first time I considered how fear could be, like gravity, an inevitable burden of aging.

Another fearless icon in my life is my college pal, Richard. When we were in the midst of our frisky 20s, we attempted a bike ride across the continent of Europe. With not much more than our blithe spirits to sponsor us, Richard led the charge.

We have been talking about renewing our European bike tour in honor of our approaching 60th birthdays. But questions keep infecting our plans: What about dehydration? Numb body parts? Pulled muscles?

What if the horses spook at their own shadows?

Now in his 50s, Richard recently confided in me, "Now, as I get older, I am afraid of everything. I guess you would call that omniphobia."

As many of us get older, we seem to become much more interested in being safe than sorry.

According to the humorist H.L. Mencken, "The one permanent emotion of the inferior man is fear ... fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable. What he wants beyond everything else is safety."

Fear definitely starts shrinking us and the world we live in. As we age, our bodies are already doing enough of that. Do we really want to potentiate that horrible reality with our psyches?

I say it is time for all of us to consider those fears that are sidelining us from taking that gallop through whatever open fields we have left before us in life.

Here are three suggestions to help you get a leg up on the task of facing into your fears:

1. Get on speaking terms with your fear. Understand what you fear. Learn to tolerate whatever uncomfortableness you have with it. Don't run away from what scares the bejeezus out of you. Look it in the eye. We can only have power over something that we can understand.

2. Rename your fear. Instead of calling it the boogey man, call it an opportunity. Cognitively reframing it as such is not just some psychological parlor trick. The old saw about getting back on your horse when you fall off is just damned good advice. We usually come to fear what we avoid.

3. Stay in the present tense. Anxiety often breeds in the future tense. We rarely can control the future, and as we get older, we are more acutely aware of this. If we allow ourselves to dwell in the future, our imaginations can easily turn sour with paranoia. Remember, worry can be like paying interest on a debt you may never owe.

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives and works in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at mseabaugh@semissourian.com.

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