Fear…and Faith

This post does not follow the usual rules. You have been warned.

I’ve been having a really tough time lately. I don’t want to get into the details of that, because that’s not why I’m here. I want to talk about how I’ve had a revelation (in a dream/nightmare) and I know now that I AM coming out of the “tough,” and I WILL rise beyond what’s been keeping me back (spoiler alert: it wasn’t 100% me, but a significant part of it was actually me).

So I pulled myself out of a nightmare about 20 or so minutes ago. The details aren’t super-important, but some of the imagery and themes stuck with me as I pulled myself out of the dream and back into wakefulness. Because sleep paralysis is a thing I often deal with during the aftermath of a nightmare, I’ve developed a habit of giving myself a pep talk while I wait for my body to work again. The main goal of this is just to keep my brain awake long enough for my body to catch up, but this morning was different. This morning, I somehow latched onto a few dream elements and was working through them as I talked to myself. At the same time, I was also processing a conversation I had yesterday with a couple of people in my office – a conversation that also included a revelation or two – and I found myself intermingling elements of the dream revelation and the work revelation in a way that caused some answers to cascade forth.

Without getting too deep into the details (because they’re not really relevant, and too many details will actually get in the way): Yesterday’s revelation involved interpersonal relationships. I’ve been involved in some “non-traditional” relationships over the past year or so, and it’s totally changed my life, primarily for the better. I’ve met some amazing, wonderful people who have shown me more love and caring and compassion and understanding than I’ve ever before experienced. July-December of last year was amazing in ways I can’t even really describe.

However, the more recent six-month period has been fraught with tension, stress, panic attacks – to the point that I have a prescription for anti-nausea medicine. Me, who hadn’t thrown up in nearly twenty YEARS, was leaving work midday because I’d found myself in the bathroom throwing up. I knew it was a stress reaction, and I tried to be patient with myself because I have been through some emotionally difficult times lately, and beating myself up over it was guaranteed to make things worse, not better. My boss has been worried (and understandably so), my friends and loved ones have been frantically browbeating me about taking some time off…and I, of course, have felt stuck between a rock and a hard place about that, since my boss has also been worried about how much work I’ve been missing due to illness.

Yesterday, things came to a head. I had a great conversation with two of my close colleagues – who are also my friends – about a number of subjects, but something really stuck with me: One of my new relationships has become increasingly “transactional.” It’s become very much a “zero sum game,” meaning that there has to be “winners” and “losers,” and if you win, I must, by definition, lose. Naturally, this has led that relationship to become very very competitive, and competition stresses me the hell out. I’m an academic for a reason, and the reason is that in the academy, EVERYONE has the potential to get an A. The only person you’re “competing” with is yourself and the course material. Which is perfect for me, because I don’t at all enjoy competitive situations.

Dovetailing with this is the fact that I also finished reading The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed their Faculty, their Students, and their Mission by Herb Childress yesterday. As I expected, this book made me unspeakably angry…but also so very very sad. I’ve been an adjunct for four years, and not too long ago, I once again was told that I wouldn’t even be getting an interview – on my own campus – for the full-time teaching job I’d once again applied for. I’d been assessed and found wanting – and without even a chance to explain myself in an interview. “We just didn’t want to waste your time when we knew we weren’t going to consider hiring you,” the e-mail said. Childress’s book explains contingent faculty from a very analytical place until the very end, where he discusses the messy human side to all of it – the deep hurt that so many of us adjuncts feel as we beg for any place at the academic table, but are continuously told that there is no place for us unless we accept conditions that are abusive and exploitative. I’ve recently tendered my resignation…and that, in and of itself, is breaking my heart. I know I need to leave for my own health and sanity…but teaching is so much a part of my soul that it feels like I don’t know who I am anymore.

I realized that my teaching relationship with my campus is also very “transactional,” but Childress’s book showed me that in this situation, there really are no “winners” – EVERYONE is losing in so many ways, and it makes me so incredibly sad and angry.

So I was dreaming just a short while ago about fear. I dreamed that my brother pissed off a deity, and I was trying to help him survive the situation. I had to find a way to get him through a maze with only one candle, and I realized that my emotions affected how quickly the candle was consumed. The more I worried, the faster the candle burned, and so the more I worried. Cue vicious cycle. I knew what was happening, but I felt so powerless in the situation to do anything about it – the fear was literally consuming me (and fear, ironically enough, has kept me from consuming much of anything over the last 24 hours – at least, in terms of actual food).

The next phase of the dream was more “stuck” stuff: I was in a Harry Potter museum exhibit that was designed to get you to “chicken out.” The further you went, the more stuff was thrown at you, with the goal of making you say “Uncle.” I “chickened out” more than once…but somehow got stuck right back in the exhibit.

That’s about the time I pulled myself out. As I was talking myself awake, I had a stream-of-consciousness that went something like this:

Fear. Fear is no fun. What I need to find is the opposite of fear. But what would that be? Literature – and the first part of the dream – tell me that the opposite of fear is faith, but that doesn’t help me, because I’m an atheist. I don’t “do” faith. *brief pause* Wait a second. “Faith” doesn’t automatically mean “religious faith.” “Faith” can mean “faith in my intelligence” or “faith in my worthiness” or “faith in my goodness” or even just “faith in myself.” Or maybe…just maybe, it can mean “faith that all these ‘zero-sum games’ are completely unnecessary, because they only exist if I allow them to!” Holy shit, I think I may be on to something. What if I can treat these situations differently, and in doing so, they become different? I know resigning from my adjunct position was the right thing to do, because I really don’t have the time/energy to do that job to the level it deserves to be, but what if I stopped framing it as “I’m not good enough for them” and started thinking about it in terms of “they aren’t good enough for me”? As for the other, what if the “transactionality” comes from fear too? Fear is a normal response to doing scary things, and what we’re doing is scary because it’s different. So what if the “cure” for that fear is also faith?

So maybe the cure for what ails me – emotionally and physically – is figuring out how to use faith to fight fear. Certainly, that’s FAR easier said than done, but if I can figure out how to get a Master’s degree, I can figure out how to overcome fear with faith.

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