Animal Encounters Series: Our Fears May Serve Our Soul
Fear is not your enemy. It is a compass pointing you to the areas where you need to grow.
~ Steve Pavlina
Alex Mansfield holding two Pythons
Julius Squeezer was a hit with many of my second-grade classmates, but for me he was terrifying. The zookeeper’s voice was calm as he explained that Julius would not hurt us. The yellow Burmese python was a happy tenant of the Children’s Zoo and traveled to classrooms to help schoolkids learn about the wild. His eyes were piercing, and though I was careful to stay to the outside of the circle of kids gathered around him, I felt like he was looking straight at me.
Snakes of all kinds are still one of my greatest fears.
So when I saw the small brown garden snake nestling against the warmth of the porch last spring I stopped and changed course. It was several days before I could bring myself to come or go through the front door of my house. In fact, had I come upon him sunning himself on a walking trail I would never have passed that way again! I realize my aversion is extreme and unrealistic. Most snakes are not even capable of harming me. But still, my inner world is jolted by the site of one.
I wonder, why snakes? I don’t mind worms, lizards, mice, or spiders. But I will go to great lengths to avoid an encounter with a snake. Even an image of a snake. Some say people are simply hard-wired to fear snakes; a fear that has been passed down from our ancestors through our collective unconscious. Stories also vilify snakes. For example, in the Christian tradition, a snake in the Garden of Eden coerces Eve to transgress God’s instructions. As the story is shared through the millennia, snakes come to represent a lurking danger or demonic threat.
I am not sure exactly what in my life and shared past has contributed to my fear of snakes, but I do know that I am constantly on the lookout for them anytime I am outdoors. This fear is a preoccupation that tamps down my experience of nature and keeps me from fully soaking in the glories of the natural world.
I wonder about what this fear may be pointing to in my deep inner world. If it is true that we sometimes seek to avoid those things our soul is asking us to explore, coming to some sense of peace with snakes is a necessary spiritual task for me. I hope to take small steps toward welcoming snakes as a part of the created world, so I can open myself up to all that I miss when scanning the ground ahead of every step.
My mother-in-law is an avid gardener. She told me once that she has an agreement with snakes. They are free to share her garden as long as they don’t startle her. When she comes across one, especially if he looks familiar, she has a chat with the snake, reminding them of the agreement. That little exchange lessens her anxiety and helps her keep gardening. How clever! She re-frames her fear as a relationship that can be managed on her terms. Likewise, my friend Tina has taught me how to gracefully face a fear. One morning while filling the bird feeder in her backyard sanctuary she looked up to see a long black snake coiled around the tree, looking at her. He lifted his head and his tongue flicked. Though startled, she managed to greet him, “oh hello there.” When she told me, she chuckled and shared a picture of him (below). Again, I envied her ability to keep fears in a rational place and to keep them in perspective with some lighthearted words and actions. I seek such strength.
Rat Snake, Tina Clark’s Garden, Macon GA
I read a poll recently that indicated fear of snakes ranks third on a list of people’s most common fears. Number1 on the list was a trip to the dentist and number 2 the fear of small spaces. Though many fear snakes, they also represent transformation. They shed their skin several times a year, as they grow. Before the skin sheds, it covers their eyes as an opaque film, impairing their vision until the old layer of skin is left behind. So, any hoped-for transformation in our human lives can be represented by a snake.
In my effort to think of snakes differently, to get beyond my inhibition and fully enjoy nature, I think of shedding a layer of anxiety and preoccupation that will allow my eyes to see natural beauty more clearly. Though I will likely continue to skip the reptile house at the zoo, I hope to someday be able to pass a snake and bid him a good day.
Keeping my eyes up and engaged with the beauty that unfolds in every natural setting is like setting aside clouded fear-based eyes in favor of splendor-seeking spiritual eyes.
What is it you fear? What is your fear asking you to tend to? Fears come in all sizes and intensities. And some are so life-altering they require professional counseling or medical intervention. For those fears that seem more manageable at the moment, I hope you will consider sharing them with your spiritual companions. Seek their help in thinking of small steps toward safe encounters which will enrich your inner world.