Many people are unabashedly afraid of snakes. This is a fairly normal fear to have, and in many places, it is a fear for good reason! Fear is our body and brain telling us to be careful, to stay safe. In some cases our fears are legitimate and definitely help keep us safe. Fear tells us to fight, flight, or freeze. Fear instinctively moves us out of our logical, thinking part of our brain and into the old, instinctive, fear-reaction part of our brain.
This morning I met a lovely and intelligent mom who, like countless others, plainly stated her fear and hatred of snakes. Her feelings originated not just from the deep, instinctive fear that many of us have, but also from unpleasant childhood encounters with snakes. She was perfectly able to logically recognize and even articulate the role snakes play in nature, but even so, they still terrify her. Feelings are never wrong, and, she is not alone in this feeling! Even other animals have unusually big reactions to seeing a snake. It is the only animal that seems to frighten my dogs, causing them to suddenly leap up and backward. Their instincts tell them that this is not a safe situation!
I try really hard to respect and honor other people’s beliefs and opinions, even when they are in opposition to my own. It’s not easy. Luckily, I get plenty of opportunities to practice and try again. I’m getting better at it, slowly but surely. I say this because I want to make clear that I am in no way criticizing the aforementioned mom. After all, she trusted me with her fear, offering that vulnerability to a near-stranger. But, as a teacher, it is my nature and training to want to help and to inform others, without judging or invalidating their very real fears, feelings, and ideas. After all, I, too, have my fears, feelings, and ideas! I am afraid of wasps and hornets. This is not an unfounded fear. I have been stung by them when I didn’t believe I had done anything to provoke them, though I accept that I probably did so without knowing it. I could benefit from doing some research and learning about wasps and hornets. I am also afraid of bridges. Yup. I feel like they might fall whenever I drive over one. This is a totally irrational fear. It has never happened to me. It could happen, but it is highly unlikely. So, with all of that in mind, I have some thoughts about how people tend to react to fear.
The tendency to react by killing snakes, spiders, and other fear-provoking creatures is understandable and even reasonable in some situations. After all, we must protect ourselves and our families. And maybe because I grew up loving just about every living thing in nature, as long as it didn’t hurt me, I still try to convince people not to kill what scares them. Digging deep into exactly why this kill reaction makes me so uncomfortable, I think about what it teaches our children when we kill or advocate killing what scares us, simply because it scares us, not because it is actually going to hurt us. How will children know when that reaction is actually necessary? What if they learn that the best way to respond to our fear feelings is to hurt or kill another creature? How does that translate in other situations where we may feel afraid of someone or something that is merely different from ourselves, and therefore, scary? Does it make us more okay with the killing of that person or animal? I can’t help seeing some parallels here to one of the issues that is dividing our country as we speak. The all too frequent killing of innocent and unarmed Black people by police is, I believe, deeply rooted in fear. I won’t explore that particular fear right now, but it is percolating through my mind as I consider the ways that humans behave when they are afraid of something or someone, even when there is no actual threat to their safety.
What if, instead, we began practicing first naming our fear and then exploring it a bit more by noticing how it makes us feel, physically and emotionally? Out-loud self-talk can be a powerful, psychological tool: I am afraid of snakes. I notice that when I think of or see them, my body freezes up and my breath comes up short. I shudder. I want to scream. I want to run away. I want to kill it so it won’t hurt me. And then, take it further. Identify if your fear reaction is well-founded. Is this snake going to actually hurt me? What do I know about snakes? Am I actually safe right now? I find that Self-Talk, out loud and using my own name, helps tremendously when I am struggling with big feelings. Tahlia, you know that snake is much smaller than you. It is probably very scared of you and would rather get away from you than try to bite you. You know that it is not venomous. You know that it helps humans and the ecosystem by eating bugs and other pests. Killing it will not help. By practicing this kind of self-talk, maybe we can gradually start to change our fear response. Simply by noticing and tuning in to our bodies and minds, we can learn to manage our fear so that we don’t let it control us.
I don’t want to live controlled by fear. I want to be able to understand and use my fears to respond mindfully, and I want to model this for the children in my life. They are watching and they are listening. And so, I will continue to challenge, with kindness and compassion, the reaction of hurting or killing another living thing when it has done us no harm.