I board horses for two of my friends. The newest member of our herd is a beautiful warmblood named Summer. For those of you who don’t know what a warmblood is, it is a very large Thoroughbred cross-tall, lean, fine head, intelligent, graceful-a real storybook horse. Summer had a long and illustrious career as a show horse before my friend bought her. She is 18 years old, which in horse years is approaching later middle age. You would think that not much would phase her at this point in her life, but she has a bogeyman in her life, just like the rest of us. In her case it is cows.
This is bad news on our ranch because not only do we have cows that share the same water trough, although not the same pasture, but there are pastures full of cows up and down the road we like to travel when we go out on a ride. They are a part of daily life for her now, and she is definitely unhappy about it.
The problem is not that she has suffered some trauma involving cows. I am quite sure her show barn lifestyle precluded any exposure to them at all, and therein lies the problem. They smell different, they look different, they move differently, they stare at her, they are curious and come closer to inspect her-you get the idea. Terrifying monsters, for sure. She does not have the perspective that she is separated by fences from any cows that populate her daily existence. She doesn’t realize that they are the most timid of creatures unless their young are threatened. If she were to rush at them, they would surely turn tail and run. None of this is helpful for her.
So we are working on desensitizing her to them. When we ride down the road, we approach until she becomes stressed and then retreat. Sometimes I walk with her to the water trough when they are standing there so that she will have a companion when she drinks. She has the daily experience of seeing them up close across the fence and is coming to realize that they have no interest in eating her up. She is getting used to them.
But it doesn’t mean a thing that her fear is irrational. It is just as real, just as uncomfortable, just as overpowering as if they were mountain lions. She can’t tell the difference. And this makes me think about my own fears and how uncomfortable they are even when I KNOW they are irrational. I know that cows are not mountain lions. But I am still afraid to go to the water trough and drink.
What am I afraid of? Oh, the usual things: death, loneliness, losing my loved ones, not having enough money, getting old, being sick, being laughed at, ridiculed, despised, rejected. I have a phobic fear of snakes and of flying. I fear failure. I fear success.
The trouble with my fears is that they cause me to shrink my life down to what feels safe to me. And that keeps me from dreaming, trying new things, being adventurous and taking risks. I see that often what makes someone seem old is that they have done this very thing: let life shrink down to what is comfortable-which turns out to be eating, sleeping and watching television-which is nothing more than experiencing life vicariously through the dramas surrounding fictional lives. What keeps people young at heart is to keep trying, keep learning, and keep pushing past the barriers of their comfort zones.
Starting my own business is making me face all my many fears in a way that I never have before. Truly that is the thing that is the most challenging about it. It is also the thing that is the most exciting. I don’t want my fears to build fences around my life and keep me from stretching and moving out from the safety of the barn. I am determined to push past them. Because I know, I really and truly know, that most of them are just cows, not mountain lions. And I know that like Summer, if I keep exposing myself in small doses, my fear will diminish.
I don’t really have anything particularly profound to say about all of this. But I think that most of us have had the experience of seeing our lives contract because we are afraid of something. And it is just a really stinkin’ way to live. I will not get to the end of my life and wish I had been more careful or fearful. I will not be glad on my deathbed that I never did anything that scared me.
The following is from an article that detailed the observations of a nurse who spent part of her career caring for people on their deathbeds. It says, better than I can, what it is I am trying to express:
“For many years I worked in palliative care. My patients were those who had gone home to die. Some incredibly special times were shared. I was with them for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives.
People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality. I learnt never to underestimate someone’s capacity for growth. Some changes were phenomenal. Each experienced a variety of emotions, as expected, denial, fear, anger, remorse, more denial and eventually acceptance. Every single patient found their peace before they departed though, every one of them.
When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, common themes surfaced again and again. Here are the most common five:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.
It is very important to try and honour at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.
By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.
We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.
It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away. People do want to get their financial affairs in order if possible. But it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. Usually though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It is all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.
When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.
Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness.”
I am tired of fear ruling my life, my dreams, and my water trough. I’m going to drink up and stare those cows in the eye. Who is with me?