The upside of fear

I’ve heard many times that the opposite of love is not hatred, as you might expect, but fear. The implication, of course, is that love is good and fear is bad. But I recently read something that has me thinking. Fear is what keeps us alive.

We’re born with a fierce survival instinct, and all of us have felt it first-hand. Near-misses, such as swerving to avoid a collision with a cement truck, trigger a surge of adrenaline that prepares us to fight or flee. Our initial feeling is fear, which is followed (almost immediately) by a hormonal surge that equips us to do something about it.

If it weren’t for our built-in fear of death, we’d step out of our lives at the first sign of discomfort and request a cosmic do-over. Fear keeps us on the planet.

The fear of death can erode, however, and when it does, we have a safety net. Holocaust survivors, prisoners of war, and victims of torture have survived unspeakable suffering because of the love and responsibility they felt for their families.

Usually, we are kept alive by two layers of emotions: fear of
death and the love and responsibility we feel for our families

If we lose our fear of death, feelings of love and
responsibility keep us fighting for survival

When you have lived a full life and come toward the end of your years, the fear of death naturally erodes. Knowing that your loved ones can care for themselves gives you peace of mind, and you can allow yourself to relax your grip on life. When my grandfather was in his late eighties, he said, “I just want to go home.” We adored him and were very sad when he died at 89, but we knew it was what he wanted.

A well-lived life isn’t the only thing that causes people to relax their grip, however. Sometimes, depression and mental anguish become so great that they extinguish all emotions, including the fear of death and feelings of love and responsibility. This causes a total eclipse, which can lead people to put a permanent end to their own suffering.

Profound mental anguish can snuff out the feelings that usually keep us alive

A year ago day today, my friend Marc died of a total eclipse. I’ve thought a lot about how and why his safety net eroded. Obviously, Marc lost his fear of death. But what about the love and responsibility he felt for his wife and twin 11-year-old sons?

Clearly, all of Marc’s emotional systems failed. Marc thought he was ending his own suffering when he pulled the trigger. He didn’t realize that his suffering would increase exponentially as it passed to the wife, children, parents, siblings, friends, and colleagues who would, on some level, be grappling with his death for the rest of their lives.

I alternate between feelings of compassion and empathy (because of the despair that Marc died of) and anger (because of the pain that he forced the rest of us to live with). On some level, I guess I also feel a little envy. Marc’s pain is gone. Mine will remain for a long, long time.


Marc Alan Olson

September 15, 1965~September 21, 2007

Born in Tacoma, Marc graduated from University of Puget Sound with a degree in Physics in 1987. While there, he and his dear friend, Scott Andrews founded Passages, the outdoor orientation program for freshmen. Marc also served on the UPS Board of Trustees. He worked as a software engineer at Microsoft since 1989. Marc lived his life to the fullest with energy and commitment, admired by all who knew him. He was a devoted and loving husband, father and friend who had many passions in life including learning, reading, cooking, flying, photography, hiking, boating, skiing and anything that immersed him in the great outdoors. With his wife and kids, Marc loved nothing more than hosting friends and family at their “little bit of paradise” on Stuart Island, enjoying fine food and wine, fellowship and spectacular sunsets. Marc will be remembered by his many friends for his brilliant mind, generous spirit and insatiable appetite for life. Marc is survived by his parents, Judy and Terry Olson, wife, Jean, twin sons, Alex and Jake, brother, Craig, sister, Marce and their families. A Memorial Service to celebrate Marc’s Life will be held on Thursday, Sept. 27th, 1:00 p.m. at University Presbyterian Church, 4540 15th Ave NE, Seattle. All are welcome. In lieu of flowers, remembrances may be made to a college fund that will be established for Alex and Jake.

How I lost my faith

When I was in the fourth grade, my sister, brother, and I responded to a hell-fire and brimstone altar call at the Bible Baptist Church in Rantoul, Illinois. My mother had been raised a Christian by devout Methodist parents, and her brother was a Methodist minister. But she also became “born again” and raised the bar. She got baptised in the church’s baptismal tank, which amounted to a declaration of war between her and my father. From then on, it was us against him.

Mom and Dad were now “unequally yoked,” and the pressure was on for him to see the light and accept Jesus as his Lord and Saviour. But Dad, who had been raised by an Army chaplain with a mean streak, would have none of it.

After Dad retired from the Air Force, we headed west, where he and Mom owned an unfinished house in Roy, Washington. There, we attended the Roy Missionary Church, where I eventually became a Sunday school teacher, youth group leader, and camp counselor.

It was while preparing one of my “sermons” for the youth group that I realized God was too small. I went out onto my grandfather’s land and prayed, “God, this is too easy. I could fit you into a shoebox and that can’t be right. Show me how big you are.”

At that time, I had my first serious boyfriend. His mother had died of cancer when his little sister was nine, and I had a special place in my heart for her. Jill was one of the brightest lights and most deeply spiritual people I’d ever met. She joined our youth group and caught the eye of Mike, who asked me to help him write poems with which to woo her. Soon, Mike and Jill fell in love.

I lived with my parents during my first two years of college and then packed my car and headed to Seattle Pacific University for the last two years. On my way out of town, I stopped by the cemetary where Jill’s mother was buried, knelt by her grave, and prayed, “God, I can’t take care of Jill anymore. Please take care of her for me.”

In the winter of my senior year at college, Mike and Jill were killed in a car accident. It took place right in front of Jill’s house and her father was the first one on the scene.

Jill’s father asked me to speak at the funeral, which I did. Seeing Jill’s broken body in a casket was difficult, but having both caskets in front of me while addressing the hundreds of people who attended the funeral was even harder. It was, without question, the most gut-wrenching thing I’ve ever done.

When Mike and Jill’s lives ended, my war with God began. I had asked–I had specifically asked–God to take care of Jill, and he killed her. If he didn’t outright kill her, then he failed to prevent her death, which was just as bad.

The prayer I’d said on my grandfather’s land had been answered–this God certainly didn’t fit in a shoebox. I felt completely betrayed and wanted nothing to do with him. My faith crumbled. The black-and-white world in which I had found comfort vanished. I was adrift on seas of gray under an angry sky and lost sight of everything that had once lent order to my universe.


Oddly, it never occurred to me not to believe in God–I guess I needed him to exist so I’d have someone to blame. I eventually rebuilt a spiritual world view that made sense to me, but it took almost 20 years to do it. It is nothing like my mother’s.

My mother believes that Mike and Jill, who had been together for a number of years, may have been finding it difficult to keep from getting physical with each other. She believes that God “took” them before they managed to fornicate. “You mean death is better than premarital sex?” I asked her. “Yes,” she said, nodding sadly.

* The illustration, by Kris Wiltse, is from the “Hopeless” card, which is part of the Mixed Emotions card deck.

The road not taken

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

From “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

So often, when we come to a fork in the road, our hearts want to take us in one direction, and our heads want to take us in another. It’s been at least a decade since I last allowed my head to rule my heart. That lesson was so profoundly expensive, that I’ve followed my heart pretty faithfully ever since.

Head vs. Heart sign

Now that I’ve gotten to that place–which feels incredibly right to me–it makes me sad to witness heart vs. head battles in which someone’s head wins. Our heart’s desire is simple: all it wants is happiness. To see someone reason him- or herself out of happiness seems utterly contradictory to me.

In my own life, I’ve watched it happen with two men that I loved. When we were together, their hearts–childlike and innocent–simply said, “I love you. I respect and admRoad sign with Head and Heart pointing in the same directionire you. You bring out the best in me, and I like who I am when we’re together.” But when we were apart, their minds processed logistics, statistics, circumstances, and situations–calculating geographical distances, drive times, livelihoods, pensions, and parenting.

Their heart vs. mind battles were epic, and all I could do was hope that they would ultimately choose the road that led to me. But in the end, they did not.

Does following my heart mean that my head isn’t involved in my life’s journey? No, not at all. Following my heart simply means that I trust it to point me in the direction of happiness. Then my head figures out how to get from here to there.

If I put both my heart and mind into something, does it guarantee success? No. But I don’t ask as many “What
if . . .?” questions, or struggle with as many “If only . . .” regrets. When I put both my heart and mind into something, I know I’ve given it my all, and if an endeavor fails, it’s easier to chalk it up to experience and move on.

(I miss you, Chris.)

Happiness: not for the faint of heart

There is no happiness fairy. There is no guru, motivational speaker, author, mentor, lover, or clergyperson who can make us happy–though we often wish there was.

Happiness is a decision we make, a risk we take, and if we are happy, it is because we dare to be.

ConfidentI am happy because I discovered that English made my heart sing, and I majored in it in spite of the fact that it provided me with no guaranteed livelihood.

I am happy because I paid off my student loans and cashed in my 401k to finance a year in Europe.

I am happy because I stepped out of the center of my own universe to make room for a child.

I am happy because I weathered the storm of ugliness that is divorce, and gave the sun a chance to come out again.

I am happy because I left the security of a nine-to-five job to start several businesses based on my passions.

I am happy because my son and I left everything we knew behind in Seattle to move to an island that felt like home from the moment we set foot on it.

I am happy because I built my dream house when I wanted to–even though I was a single parent at the time.

I am happy because I have a little farm.

When my courage wanes, I put on a bracelet that says, “Leap and the net will appear.” Happiness, I have discovered, is not for the faint of heart. I am only truly happy when I have the courage to be.

The illustration, by Kris Wiltse, is from the “Confident” card, which is part of the Mixed Emotions card deck.

My Scarlett O’Hara moment

The summer after I finished fifth grade, Dad retired from the Air Force. After 20 years in the military, he rose only to the rank of staff sergeant, so there was little retirement pay. Dad’s skills in repairing flight simulators weren’t in great demand in the Real World, so he decided to go to college on the G.I. Bill. The college he chose was Washington State University in Pullman–a 5-1/2 hour drive away from our home.

With Dad away at college and no one earning money, Mom had to apply for public assistance. Now, my mother was no stranger to need. She survived World War II in Germany on rations such as one egg per person per month. But during the war, everyone was in the same boat. While Dad was at college, we couldn’t help comparing our poverty to what we perceived to be the riches of everyone around us. Initially, we received USDA commodities, including cans of chicken, milk in plastic bags, and one-pound bricks of butter. We consumed them in our own home, so it was easy to hide our need, but moving on to food stamps “outed” us. Handing food stamps to the cashier at the grocery store was so humiliating for my mother that she burst into tears.

We were also outed at school, where the three of us kids got free lunches. In the cafeteria of my junior high school, a bulletin board depicted a big construction paper fish eating a smaller fish, which was eating a still smaller fish. Underneath were the words, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” which only compounded my shame and self-consciousness.

At 12 and 13, my brother and I started delivering newspapers to earn money. Seven days a week, rain or shine, we traveled miles to deliver The News Tribune to the residents of our rural town, Roy, Washington. The town is bisected by railroad tracks, and Tom delivered papers on one side of the tracks, while I delivered them on the other. Mom got a physically demanding job at a tree nursery called Silvaseed.

Although my father eventually graduated from WSU, things never got much better. He worked here and there as a substitute teacher, but was never able to function outside the military. It had told him what to wear, where to go, what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and whom to salute. He couldn’t figure those things out for himself as a civilian. Socially and emotionally, he remained stuck in his early teens.

When I moved on to work-study jobs in high school, my little sister inherited my paper route. I attended Pierce College, and managed to get through on grants, scholarships, and more work-study jobs. Then I transferred to Seattle Pacific University, where I also received grants, student loans, and work-study.

I don’t know if it was not being able to afford a 10 cent postage stamp or a 25 cent load of laundry, but I eventually had one of those Scarlett O’Hara moments. You know, the moment when she collapses on her knees, grabs a fistfull of dirt and says, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”

And that is exactly how my life turned out.

Not having enough money made me feel desperate, stressed, embarrassed, trapped, powerless, and afraid–all definite signs that I was not on my path. When I graduated from college and was able to assume full responsibility for my own destiny, I redirected my course, and things got a lot better.

Desperate Stressed

Embarrassed Trapped

Powerless Afraid

Kris Wiltse’s illustrations for the “Desperate,” “Stressed,” “Embarrassed,” “Trapped,” “Powerless,” and “Afraid” cards from the Mixed Emotions card deck.

Oh, rats!

Why? Why, with the Great Outdoors at their disposal do rodents set up housekeeping under the hood of my car and decide that electrical wiring is just the best thing they’ve ever tasted? More than $500 dollars later, we don’t call it “the car” anymore. We call it the “rat buffet.” As in, “Adrian, get in the rat buffet.”

I found no help for this problem online, so thanks to the helpful hardware man at Ace, I submit the following procedure for the general good of humankind.

How to keep rats from eating your car wiring

  1. Go to your local hardware store and purchase the following:
    A roll of twist-tie material. This is usually green, and you can find it in the gardening section.
    A box of RatMax Mini-Blocks by Enforcer.
    If you don’t have a pair of rubber gloves, get a some of those, too.
  2. Open your hood.
  3. Cut off a piece of twist-tie material, oh, say, a foot long.
  4. Put on your rubber gloves.
  5. Take a block of RatMax, and thread the twist-tie through the hole in the middle. Give the twist-tie a few turns right above the block to keep it from moving moving along the plastic-coated wire.
  6. Now, fasten it to a spot under the hood that won’t interfere with the workings of your engine. If you’re unsure about where to put it, ask a mechanically inclined friend or your mechanic.
  7. Hang two to four blocks of RatMax and monitor them regularly.
  8. When you discover that rats have nibbled one block away, replace it. The manufacturer of RatMax sys to “Maintain a constant supply of fresh bait for 10 days or until signs of rat activity cease.”

I now have rat poison hanging under my hood like Christmas tree ornaments, and the good news is that the rodents have been eating it. I typically avoiod getting into an adversarial relationship with nature, but this? This is WAR.

Having rats eat my car wiring feels frustrating and disgusting, which is how my “internal guidance system” let’s me know that I need to do something about it.

Frustrated Disgusted

Kris Wiltse’s illustrations for the “Frustrated” and “Disgusted” cards from the Mixed Emotions card deck.

Building from the heart (I)

In my mid-forties, I decided to build a house. Sometimes people seemed surprised that I’d even consider building a house on my own. I told them that I’d heard home-building is hard on a marriage, and since I had no marriage that would suffer, it seemed like the best time to do it. Besides, I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to meet the expectations of my parents, teachers, employers, spouse, partners, therapists, the clergy, and others. Building our house is the first time I have pleased only myself. It is the most self-indulgent thing I have ever done, and certainly one of the most empowering, creative, and fulfilling.

There are thousands of decisions that have to be made when you’re building a house. Sometimes I wished I had someone to talk things over with, but as I made each decision alone, I learned more about myself. It was like turning myself inside out for the whole world to see–everything about it was an expression of who I am.

Building a home is relatively easy when you build from the heart. You just close your eyes and imagine how you want to feel when you’re in a room. Then, you let that feeling inform every decision you make.

I wasn’t born knowing this. My parents were big do-it-yourselfers, and frankensteined their house together from pieces of other buildings. They recycled long before it was hip. Dad was proud of the solid-core doors he got from an insane asylum. He salvaged hardwood floors from a navy ship, sink fixtures from a hospital, and paneling from an old box car.

I admire my parents’ resourcefulness and am proud the fact that my 78-year-old mother is still adept with a Skil saw. But spending the night in what was once my bedroom drives me insane. My parents did not observe conventions. For example, molding should go on the wall, but in my former room it sometimes meanders up to the ceiling. The door doesn’t swing into the room as it should—it swings out—and I skin my knuckles on the door jamb almost every time I close it. There is no source of heat whatsoever, but then, there’s no source of heat in any of the bedrooms.

Elsewhere in the house, light switches were installed upside down. Mom writes “on” and “off” on the switch plate covers with a Sharpie to remind her which way to flip the switch. In the living room, Dad mounted light fixtures on wooden panels that he made out of green wood, which later cracked and split terribly. The button for the doorbell is so small that no one ever finds it, so mom wrote “Bell” above it in calligraphy. And when it rings, it isn’t a pleasant “ding dong” but a “BRRRRIIIIIIIIIINNNNNNGGGG” that’s as loud as a phone ringing at a lumber yard.

Everywhere I look in my parents’ house, I stub my eye, and I don’t feel comfortable in any of the rooms. I didn’t want that kind of house. I wanted a house built from the heart, and I got exactly what I wanted. Oh, I could go on and on about the process of building it–from having the plans feng shui-ed to milling our own lumber. Here are a few picturesTime-lapse photos of our house being builtTime-lapse photos of our house being builtof it going up.

While building our house, I felt excited, fulfilled, creative, and empowered.  Those feelings assured me that, as far as my life’s journey was concerned, I was headed in the right direction.

Excited Fulfilled

Creative Empowered

Kris Wiltse’s illustrations for the “Excited,” “Fulfilled,” “Creative,” and “Empowered” cards from the Mixed Emotions card deck.

The tractor beams that bring us home

I lived in Seattle for about 20 years, but soon after my son was born, I began to feel the urge to move. This was unusual for me because:

  • My father was in the military while I was growing up, and all I ever wanted was Never To Move Again.
  • My marriage came to an end when my son was 12 months old, so if we moved, we’d be doing it on our own.
  • My support network was in Seattle and moving away from it, especially as a single parent, made no sense at all.
  • My father was very ill, and I was making many trips south of Seattle to visit him and support my mother.

But in the fall of 2001, my father died. Three days later, my divorce was final, and a few weeks after that, I got in my car, drove north, got on a ferry, and started looking at property on Whidbey Island. It took about a year to get my house ready to sell, sell it, buy a new house, pack everything we owned, and move.

What possessed me? I still don’t know. Architect Ross Chapin once told me, “Whidbey is a calling,” and I couldn’t agree more. I was “called” so intensely that I felt like I got caught in a tractor beam.

We’ve lived here six years now, and I’ve spoken to many Islanders who felt just as intensely called, in spite of the fact that it can be challenging to earn a living here. Sometimes, when I’m in Langley, I still can’t believe how wonderful life here is, and I expect a klieg light to fall out of the sky, as it did in the movie, “The Truman Show.” (The idyllic island town that Truman lived in turned out to be a movie set.)

There were so many logical reasons for me not to move to Whidbey Island.  But I followed my heart and did it anyway, which just goes to show that I can learn from my mistakes. The rewards are incredible. This place felt like home the moment we set foot on it, and we’ve never been happier.

Before we moved, I felt a sense of longing. I felt receptive and open to the possibility of leaving Seattle, I trusted that moving was the right thing for us to do, and I feel incredibly happy now that I’ve done it.

Longing Receptive

Trusting Happy

Kris Wiltse’s illustrations for the “Longing,” “Receptive,” “Trusting,” and “Happy” cards from the Mixed Emotions card deck.

Guilt as a motivational tool

As a child, I believed that I was responsible for my mother’s happiness. The way I ensured her happiness was to behave in exactly the way that she wanted me to. I believed that my mother would love me only if I stayed within the “target zone” of her expectations, and losing a parent’s love is a risk that a young child cannot safely take.

I became a master at reading the subtle changes in her facial expressions and moods and adjusted my behavior accordingly. In my constant attentiveness to her needs, I never became acquainted with my own. In fact, it never occurred to me to want anything that she didn’t.

What I learned from my mother served me well when I went to school, because meeting my teachers’ expectations led to good grades. And it made me a good employee, because I could anticpiate my employers’ expectations and quickly respond to their needs. But I still didn’t know who I was, what my own expectations were, or how to think for myself. That didn’t happen until I was in my late 20’s, when I quit my job, cashed in my 401k, and spent a year in Europe.

The farther I get from childhood, the more I doubt some of my memories–especially those having to do with my mother’s parenting techniques. Fortunately, I have an 8-year-old son, and watching the two of them interact confirms that my memories are accurate. If Adrian doesn’t do what my mom wants, she says something like, “Well that makes me really sad, Adrian.” I watch to see if he will be as consumed by guilt as I would have been, capitulate, and do what my mom wants. But he doesn’t. For him, guilt doesn’t work as a motivational tool, and I am so relieved to know that he has not inherited what I call my “overactive guilt gland.”

When I read Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller, I realized that my mother had used guilt to get her needs met. It takes a special combination of people for that parenting technique to work–a match made in Hell, if you will. Guilt doesn’t motivate Adrian to do her bidding, for example, and it didn’t work on my sister either. But me? Oh, God. On me, it worked in spades.

It has taken a lifetime to overcome the effect that guilt has on me, and I’m still working on it. Even as I write this, I worry that my mother might see this post. What if it hurts her feelings? What if . . .

But the silver lining is that, in the process of working through all this, I created Mixed Emotions.


Kris Wiltse’s illustration for the “Guilty” card from the Mixed Emotions deck.