Reflections on fear and forgiveness
Hello and welcome to this eighth reflection on In Fragments — this week exploring Scarecrow, a ritual to rectify patterns of fear using an effigy dressed as my mother. You can view it here:
“Fear is the mind-killer.” — Frank Herbert, Dune
Fear is called “the mind-killer” because it only exists in the future. In the present, there is really only sensation and the question of what to do next. By propelling us into an imagined future that hasn’t actually happened, fear eliminates our power to shape what happens next: a power that only ever lives in the present.
In our culture today, fear is epidemic. We are carried along by the media-political complex from one stage-managed crisis to the next, creating a parallel epidemic of chronic escapism, as we lose ourselves in opioids, alcohol, and various virtual realities that take us away from the world. This fearful resignation leaves us vulnerable to the slippage into technocratic control, surrendering our freedoms and privacies for some abstract notion of “future security” that further tranquilizes the natural wildness of life.
What is the origin of fear? It’s been said that all fears emanate from two fundamental fears: the fear of abandonment and the fear of entrapment, both of which begin with our experience in our mother’s womb. Our fear of abandonment stems from being forced to leave the perfectly warm and nurturing womb-space, while our fear of entrapment stems from growing too large for the womb-space and feeling suddenly trapped within it. If all fears somehow originate in the womb, then perhaps the resolution to our fears can also be found in this same maternal relationship — through the experience of unconditional love and acceptance. Perhaps it is here in this motherlike place where fear intersects with forgiveness.
For the first six years of my life, my own mother’s fear for my health was addressed by my wearing a “heart monitor” each night as I slept (I suffered from seizures and “near-miss SIDS” as a child). My monitor was a wood-paneled machine that sat on my bedside table, about sixteen inches square, with two gray electrical cords that clamped to white adhesive pads containing electrodes that were attached to each of my nipples. Each night as I slept, the monitor tracked my breathing and heart rate, and when aberrations were detected, an alarm would sound in my parents’ bedroom, causing my mother to rush down the hallway to check on my health.
It’s only recently that I’ve begun to reflect on the symbolism of being “monitored” by my mother for the first six years of my life — almost as though my umbilical cord were never quite cut, and the womblike experience of being within her somehow continued each night in my bedroom until I was six, when I had an “operation” to remove my tonsils and adenoids, which finally seemed to address the underlying issues.
Through those six years of surveillance and data tracking, my own little body was a site for my mother’s love and fear: her loving concern for my health mixing with her fearful paranoia about my possibly imminent death.
For many years thereafter, my own fear defined my relationship with High Acres Farm, which, like my little body, was a site of both love and fear — its natural peace and beauty mixing with our family’s history of alcoholism, divorce, and depression.
In 2015, at age thirty-six, I still felt fearful about re-engaging with High Acres Farm — afraid of becoming entrapped in its patterns of suffering, locked away forever in its gleaming golden cage. During the plant medicine experience that I described in last week’s post, I remember hearing the cawing of crows echoing through the woods that surrounded the center where we were sitting. From that faraway space, the sound of crows brought me vividly back to my childhood. I was suddenly a little boy again, wandering the lawns of High Acres Farm in the fall, looking up at the bare maple trees that towered above me, as murders of crows landed in their empty branches, cawing. Their cawing seemed to be calling me back to High Acres Farm: to re-engage with the world of my mother by grappling with fear and forgiveness.
In this eighth ritual of In Fragments, performed just a few weeks after the “crow ceremony” mentioned above, I constructed a “scarecrow” dressed as my mother, while she was away on a trip to New York to visit the Opera.
A scarecrow is a humanoid effigy, made of wood, straw, and scraps of old clothing. It is traditionally placed in a farm field to prevent crows from eating the crops. In the movie, The Wizard of Oz, the Scarecrow’s only wish is to be given a brain, admitting a “mindlessness” that makes him vulnerable to fear, even as he tries to wield that very fear to keep away scavenging birds. In a similar way, a “field of fear” had for so many years kept me away from our home in Vermont.
Much like a “voodoo doll” that functions as a long-distance receptacle for the actions of the Haitian sorcerer, I created this scarecrow to function as a proxy for my mother. But while voodoo dolls are typically used to bring sickness to the proxied person by inserting poison darts, I intended for this scarecrow to be used as a tool of healing and forgiveness — forgiveness of my mother for the way her fear affected me, and forgiveness of myself for feeling my own fear. This duality is reflected in the circular mirrored eyes of the effigy: the way in which we see ourselves in one another.
Forgiveness is a motherlike force that uses the power of presence to dissolve the future-focus of fear. It is a witnessing and experiencing of the fullness of something, while embracing that something with total acceptance. This practice is sometimes called feeling is healing or feel it to heal it — it is the natural solution to its pernicious opposite: what you resist persists.
Though I performed this ritual more than six years ago, I believe I finally experienced its emotional counterpart just this past fall — in a small ceremony with a few friends here in the wilderness of northern New Mexico. During the ceremony, I was overtaken by a sudden flood of emotions. I found myself back at High Acres Farm witnessing my mother’s life, and my grandfather’s life, and all of their suffering. I felt the isolation, the paralyzing fear, the addiction, the wish to control, the hopeless devastation of depression. I felt so sad for these individuals, my close relatives. I also felt anger and rage that this was my experience of childhood, that these were my reference points for “mother” and “woman.” As I began to fall deeper into this spiral of grief, my friends did their best to support me, holding me gently, and offering steady encouragement. I wanted to be free of this suffering once and for all, to move beyond these dark associations. I remembered the practice: feeling is healing. So I set the intention to allow these difficult feelings to pummel me, to become me, so that they could be witnessed and experienced through me, and then finally healed and forgiven. I feel now that what happened that day this past fall was the emotional twin to this Scarecrow ritual that I performed in 2015 — and maybe even to all of In Fragments.
The music in this ritual’s film was recorded by a group of close female friends from the plant medicine community that surrounded me during the “crow vision” mentioned above. In late 2015, they gathered again to perform a special healing circle for my ailing mother. They sang the traditional Hawaiian Ho`oponopono prayer, repeating the words: I love you. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I thank you.
As the scarecrow moves through the lawns of High Acres Farm (the same lawns I saw in the vision of me as a child observing the crows in the trees), it receives the healing Ho`oponopono prayer in each location — eventually making its way into the house, up the stairs, down the long hallway, and into my mother’s bedroom, where it finally takes its place in her bed: in the very location where six months later she ended up dying.
In the final scene of the film, an aberration in the lens caused a shadow to pass across the image of the scarecrow just as its head unexpectedly fell to the side — as if its mind and spirit, forgiven at last, were finally leaving its body.
Forgiveness is the mind-reviver,
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I am so grateful that I met you, Jonathan. Your "mom scarecrow" is so familiar to me. And the words of the song, so powerful. I want her to ask me to forgive her, but I don't think she will ever accept, in this lifetime, that she has been hurtful. I also see myself in her, especially in my alcohol consumption as a way to escape and cope with the deep sadness.
I appreciate this discussion of fear. I've been researching CPTSD ('abandonment depression') which has been very illuminating on the fear of abandonment. Fear of entrapment is new to me. I can see this explaining the hostility response - people fear becoming entrapped so they lash out in order to create distance and space. I suppose we can try to fix the pain of fear with substances, accomplishments, scientific and knowledge and even art. But in my experience the most healing solution of all is simply the form of relationship - creating and sustaining a relationship that is warm, reciprocal and reliable. Living in this relationship becomes the antidote itself.