My 3 year old, Jane, has a very equivocal relationship with animals. She is obsessed with them, constantly pretends to be one – some days a bunny, others a pussy cat, a dolphin or a turtle – and she desperately wants us to buy a pet. When she grows up she is apparently going to have a farm, with very definite (but nonetheless changeable) numbers of particular animals – heavy on the horses, cats, and fluffy chicks (who never grow up), with occasional outbreaks of hippos and snow leopards. And no-one ever gets eaten.
At the same time, though, her preferred animal is one who doesn’t actually move. It’s possible that she has spent too much time with soft toys and not enough with real creatures, but even a rabbit can alarm her by hopping unexpectedly, or just sniffing at her toes.
Dogs who jump are terrifying, and any moving dog causes her to climb the nearest safe adult until she is safely at the top of Mount Parent, and then she will loudly demand the removal of said monolith to a safer, entirely dog-free location.
There is this incredible tension between her intense interest in – and affection for – animals, and her overwhelming fear of them. Whenever she gets regular contact with an animal, she grows more confident, and gradually removes it from the list of scary things. This fascinates me, because it strikes me as a beautiful parable, even for adults. We all suffer, to some degree, from fear of the unknown. We can try to avoid it and allow the fear to grow in its own dark cave, or we can face our demons, drag them kicking and screaming out into the light of day, and watch them evaporate.
So often when we confront our fears they prove groundless. Although they seem impossibly hard and substantial when they lurk in the darkest recesses of our mind, exposed to the light they can disappear in a moment, like ice cubes on hot bitumen, leaving barely a sign that they had ever existed.
Jane’s fear of animals extends to almost anything that moves. She’s terrified of flies, the tiniest of ants, and moths. She’s fairly happy about butterflies, but I suspect that’s because none have ever tried to land on or near her. Her perception of the animals bears no relationship to actual facts about them. You can argue endlessly that possums only eat fruit, for example.
Jane: “The possums might eat me!!”
Me: “Possums only eat fruit. Are you a banana?”
Jane (scornfully): “Of course not!”
Me: “Then you’re fine.”
Jane: “But they might eat me!!”
(repeat ad nauseam)
We can scoff, but how many of our own fears are even less logical than that? I think we could all learn something from Jane’s example, and start facing our fears. Sure, she needs someone to hold her hand when the bunny twitches his terrifying nose, but we all need someone to hold our hand sometimes. What’s the bet that many of our own fears will turn out to be fluffy and harmless too?