Considering that I was in excellent health and my top three fears at the time were (1). Sharks, (2.) Quicksand and (3.) Giant Ants, you wouldn’t necessarily have guessed that my fear of death had become such an all-consuming pastime.
It’s not like any of these factors could be labeled as “high risk” in New Orleans, where I lived. But logic wasn’t really my strong suit at that age.
Sharks and quicksand make a strange sort of sense, I suppose…if I were on safari or stranded on some deserted island in the Pacific. My fear of sharks still lingers today, and I have bookmarked useful links like this one, should I ever run into quicksand, but even I don’t know why giant ants made the list. After serious reflection, I narrowed that fear down to three events:
- In school, we read a short story about man who is eaten alive by army ants. (Thanks for that, by the way, to whichever teacher decided THAT was a good idea.)
- I also had a vivid nightmare that Superman and I were trapped down in the sewer with human-sized ants, and when Superman saw an open manhole above us, he flew away and abandoned me to my doom. (I can still recall that moment of betrayal with a bizarre sort of clarity, which is why I prefer Batman.)
- I fell off my bike one afternoon onto a neighbor’s lawn, and when I went to brush off what I thought were dried cypress leaves from my body, I realized the leaves were moving. They were actually rows and rows of fire ants marching up my legs and torso with unsettling speed and precision. The incident sent me into a screaming, gyrating panic straight into my house and up the stairs to the shower, shedding ants everywhere in my wake. (Sorry, Mom.)
Louisiana’s fire ant population is something to take very seriously. They are everywhere, and they leave a mean bite. When it floods, you can even find the little suckers floating on the water, defiant, full of venom and opportunistic. But even I knew giant ants weren’t a problem in New Orleans.
No, my fear of death had nothing to do with giant ants or fire ants or any other kind of ants. It all started after I heard about a kid from the neighborhood who died. I didn’t know this kid, and I can’t recall now what happened, though I think it may have been a car accident.
What I do remember, is that in a desire to comfort me and address my fear—and also probably to give meaning to a senseless tragedy, I was told that some children complete their life “mission” early, and so they get to go to heaven ahead of schedule. In other words, they are so perfect and good, they graduate from life and can go on to the next level before the rest of us.
This interpretation of events did not comfort me. The conclusion I drew from this explanation is that if you are too good, you die. Being too good was dangerous—deadly even. I started to worry—in an unapologetically narcissistic way that only a child can—that maybe I was at risk. What if I was getting too good? How would I know if I was getting too good? And did God give you any warning if you were getting close to being too good?
Just a couple of years later, as I started the awkward and uncomfortable transition to teenagedom, I would be dissuaded from these delusions of grandeur, thanks to a healthy cocktail of raging hormones and self-loathing. But at age ten, using the limited range of markers available to me to assess my level of “goodness,” I thought I was doing a pretty decent job of it—maybe too decent a job. And I wasn’t ready to die.
I was a good student, a rule follower—parents and teachers loved me. I wasn’t in trouble much at home, and I went to church every week. Compared to some of the other kids, I was definitely ahead of the game. This was a dire situation indeed. If I wasn’t careful, I could be too good in a year, maybe even six months.
I would sit quietly in Sunday School, staring at the teacher but lost in my own anxious thoughts. When you are good enough, do you somehow know you are good enough? Can you tell when you’re getting too close? Should I throw in a little bad behavior just for good measure?
These thoughts went on for months, and I never confided my worries to anyone. The overachieving perfectionist in me secretly liked the idea that I may be able to figure out this whole “goodness” thing ahead of schedule, but my inner pragmatist was concerned that figuring it out too early would seriously cramp my style.
I’m not sure when I stopped worrying that I might end up on some heavenly hit list. There wasn’t some grand epiphany I can pinpoint that revealed my absurdity to me. I’m sure at some point I just became self-aware enough to realize I was in no danger of being perfect anytime soon—or, ever. And that accidents and tragedies happen, whether you are good or not. But when I look back on this fear now, I find the whole thing more than a little embarrassing. I want to grab ten-year-old me by the shoulders and say, “Get some humility, kid. You aren’t all that.”
And maybe that’s what I find most fascinating about it—the innocence of it all. At least as I was honest in my conceit. As someone with more than thirty years of mistakes under my belt, and a healthy sprinkling of regrets—it is almost unfathomable for me to remember a time when I thought I was good enough as is. That perfection was within striking distance. That there was a time when instead of feeling ashamed about my inability to live up to my own and others’ expectations, I felt like I was doing a pretty good job, or too good of a job.
That kid needed to discover a little humility—and I still do. Life is accommodating that way. It knows when we need a good kick in the teeth. But should I really go back and tell ten-year-old me she isn’t “all that”? She’ll hear that message soon enough and often enough. Maybe that kid can remind this imperfect adult, You are all that after all. You are good enough. Don’t forget.