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Where Fear Comes From

As I sat in my driveway Thursday night watching fireworks, I was transported back to a July evening more than 40 years ago.

My family and I were sitting in lawn chairs in front of our small rental house on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon watching an amateur fireworks show. As a very young girl, I didn’t know the pyrotechnics were less than impressive. All I knew was that my parents were complaining about the long delays between explosions and that Charlie Brown was scared. And I was worried about Charlie.

Trina and Charlie Brown 1971

Trina and Charlie Brown 1971

From the day my parents adopted Charlie Brown, they should have known I would fall deeply in love. I was born to be a dog lover the way some people are born to be athletes or musicians. According to my baby book, one of my first words was “doggie,” and, as a toddler, I would search out dog books at the local library.

But until Charlie Brown arrived, my family never had a dog.

Since then, my family has never been complete without a dog.

charlie brown

Charlie Brown

And even though we loved Charlie, his early years weren’t easy. He came into our lives at a time when dogs were allowed to roam, and roam he did. When he strayed onto a cattle ranch and started chasing the cows, the rancher shot him. He barely survived, and my parents always blamed his fear of thunder and fireworks on that incident.

Their explanation was reasonable, and I always believed them until I discovered that other dogs, those who have never been shot, also fear thunder and fireworks.

That’s when I began to wonder where the fear comes from. I just couldn’t understand why so many dogs would be afraid of the same thing when their experiences were so varied.

The concept of fear has always fascinated me, especially since I’ve spent my own life overcoming unjustified ones. When I was young, I was afraid to swim in water that was over my head even though I could swim perfectly well when I could touch the bottom. I was afraid to slide down a fireman’s pole, even when all the other kids were expressing sheer joy during the descent. And I’ve always been afraid of rejection and failure to the extent that I avoided potential relationships and challenges.

Then, at one point in my life, I thought I had finally figured out the fear factor.

In college, a Psychology professor discussed the theory of collective memory, and the concept clicked. I might not have experienced an event that would provoke fear, but one of more of my ancestors had. They would have then passed those fears down to me.

That made sense for the dogs as well. They may not have experienced the danger associated with loud noises, but their ancestors had.

For years, as I’ve slowly overcome my fears one by one, I’ve held on to that theory.

Then Rodney entered my life.

Rodney watching the fireworks.

Rodney watching the fireworks.

Rodney is the current canine member of my family. He’s a giant German Shepherd with a lot of energy and very little fear. That is, very little fear unless you count his inability to be left alone.

When we first adopted Rodney from a rescue group, he wouldn’t even go into our backyard without someone accompanying him. Over the past three years, he’s improved, but he still hates to be separated from the family, and, yes, particularly from me.

On Thursday night, as the human members of the family sat in the driveway watching fireworks, Rodney sat in the house watching us. He whined, he whimpered and he cried until I brought him out to join us.

And then he was content. While the city fireworks boomed overhead and the neighbors shot off their firecrackers, he simply watched. And my theory about the roots of fear was forgotten.

Because, at that moment, I realized that no matter where fear comes from, there will always be an even greater force.

It’s called love.

Is that a Compliment or Are You Just Trying to Confuse Me?

I used to think a compliment was a compliment.

Of course I also used to think that life was like a math equation.

That is, I thought that if you did the right thing, then good things would happen to you. And, if you were greedy,  mean or cold-hearted, then bad things would happen. In other words, in the balance sheet of life, everything would add up.

I also believed that if you watched what you ate and exercised on a regular basis, there was no reason you shouldn’t be able to fit in the same sized jeans you wore in high school.

I was clearly delusional.

Now that I’m older, I’m a bit more realistic.

I also find myself analyzing every compliment I receive.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those people who thinks all  compliments are back-handed or have some hidden meaning.

I’ve simply found that compliments say more about the people who give them than about the people who receive them.  They provide great insight into motivations and personalities.

For example, I used to go absolutely crazy with friends who would criticize people behind their back only to make insincere compliments to their faces.

Not that I necessarily felt the need to be rude to people whom I disliked or didn’t respect (at least most of the time), but I certainly didn’t feel  the need to lavish them with phony compliments.

But, to be fair, that’s a trait that can actually be very beneficial. Personally, my lack of it has cost me dearly at times. Because what I figured out was  that the people who give such compliments simply want to keep the peace. It’s more important to them than being self-righteous. That’s very admirable.

Not that I’ve been able to change my ways all that much, but at least I understand.

What I’m still trying to understand are the compliments that come from my own family.

I didn’t grow up in a family that threw compliments around. And I didn’t marry into one either.

That’s not a bad thing at all, because the compliments that I did receive are definitely memorable…not necessarily ones to treasure.. but definitely memorable.

Take my husband.

Nearly 20 years ago, before we were married, he told me that I was “a worker.” He then explained. “That’s the highest compliment you could receive from my mom’s side of the family. ”

The effect of this compliment was short-lived when I realized that, while his grandmother may have appreciated  “a worker,” my husband had higher regard for people who can sit back, relax, enjoy life, and watch  the same episodes of a favorite television show over and over and over.. AND OVER again. Based on that, I’m surprised he married a woman who has a hard time sitting still for five minutes and feels guilty if she’s not accomplishing something 24 hours a day.

More recently, I was confused by what, I think, was intended as a compliment from him.

We were discussing why married couples complain about their spouse’s personality traits.  My comment was that personality traits don’t change no matter how long you are married, so they shouldn’t have gotten married to begin with if they were that annoyed.

This  led to the question as to whether people can and do change and inevitably to my asking “have I changed?”

My husband thought about it a minute, then told me I had. When I asked how, he said “You’re more mature.”

To put this in perspective, my husband has complete disdain for women whom he considers “immature.” I’m not exactly clear what his exact definition of immature is, but I think it has something to do with people who get upset when the world doesn’t revolve around them, or who expect life to constantly be exciting or who put their own wants and desires above all else.  That’s based solely  on my keeping a list of all the people, mostly women, who he has identified as “immature.”

Logically, one would think that the definitions of mature and immature would be exact opposites.

But, in this case,  I’m not so sure.  Because after considering if I had ever been one of those women, I realized that, for the most part, I hadn’t been. So his definition had to mean something else. But when I asked him what he meant, he couldn’t explain, and I was a bit worried.

Maybe because when I hear the word mature, I immediately picture a matronly woman buying clothes in the “old  lady”  section of the local department store.

I’m not there.. yet.

So, I gave up trying to figure out exactly what my husband meant and just decided to take it as a compliment. After, all, as I said before, compliments say a lot about the person who gives them.  And my husband is a great judge of a character, so he had to mean something positive.

At least I’m pretty sure.