Existential Anxiety: Scared of the Dark Part 2

There are several core feelings that arise during transitions: loneliness, vulnerability, disorientation, uncertainty, grief, and existential fear or anxiety. It’s critically important that people understand that these feelings are a normal part of ending one life stage and beginning another, of saying goodbye to a stage of life, a chronological year, a season, or even a day. Of course the intensity of the feelings increases according to the intensity of the transition; recognizing the bellying over of sunset into night or dawn into daytime certainly won’t elicit extreme levels of anxiety. Nevertheless, in witnessing my older son’s nightly fears as he falls asleep  and hearing my clients talk about how their anxiety is worse at night, I have to wonder if our general, existential fears aren’t filtered down to that vulnerable, transitional time when our conscious mind is made permeable and the life of the unconscious rises to the surface.

The fears of the dark started just after he turned five, as I wrote about here. I was bewildered by the fears until I understood in them in the context of transitions. As he’s changing and growing into his big boy self, he’s experiencing the core feelings of transitions which inevitably make him feel out of control inside. Lacking the ability to say, “I feel out of control,” he attaches his spiritual discomfort onto something tangible, like the strange shapes the blankets made in the dark. It’s exactly what we, as adults, do in the midst of transitions when we focus on the wedding planning or the accumulation of baby stuff as a way to concretize the inner turmoil. It requires consciousness to proactively retract the energy from the externals and learn the tools to manage the uncomfortable feelings.

In watching Everest, it’s clear that anxiety and fear during transitions is a normal and natural aspect of being human. There’s no external danger present in Everest’s life, and while we’re far from perfect as parents, we do our best to create an emotionally safe environment for him: there’s no abuse at home, bullying at school, conflicts in the neighborhood. But he’s exquisitely sensitive, and lately has been especially attuned to any infliction of pain to himself or others (physically or emotionally), and deeply aware that life in finite and unpredictable. How does a young child come to terms with the inherently anxiety-provoking fact that there are no certainties and that death is a part of life? At the threshold of his six-year journey that marks the beginning of adolescence, it seems that he’s experiencing a mini-adolesecence where, in his six year old way, he’s grappling with these large questions.

As always, I wish I could send him to a village elder where he could sit in the presence of and feel soothed by his wisdom. I wish we lived communally so he could find a teenage boy to latch onto and begin to emulate his confident ways. I wish there was a time-honored ritual that he could walk through that would help contain, in that invisible realm, these amorphous uncertainties.

Despite my awareness and loving intentions, will he grow up fractured simply because we live in fractured culture? My first response to this question is to cry. My next thought is to transplant my family to Africa, the Rainforest, or the Australian Outback. But when I reel myself back to reality and take a couple of deep breaths, I remind myself that we can only do the best we can do as individuals, as parents, and as a culture. I remain committed to my personal healing and to bringing consciousness and healing to others through my work in the world. And I remain committed to finding the new ways to bring containment and meaningful rituals to our young ones.

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Sheryl Paul, M.A., is regarded as an international expert in transitions. In 1998, she pioneered the field of bridal counseling and has since counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her bestselling books, “The Conscious Bride” and “The Conscious Bride’s Wedding Planner,” her websites, www.consciousweddings.com and www.consciousmotherhood.com, and her blog, http://conscious-transitions.com. She has appeared several times on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, as well as on “Good Morning America” and other top television, radio, and newspapers around the globe. Phone and Skype sessions available internationally for all types of transitions and ongoing counseling.