In the summer, about ten years ago, while looking at houses, my youngest son got stung on his eyelid by a wasp. And thus, with tears and shrieks, began my journey into understanding and coping with anxieties.
What began as a quest to understand the fear my child was experiencing and to help him overcome that fear, morphed into a self-discovery experience for me. When I went to the interview at the children’s hospital for my child to be accepted into an educational program to help him overcome his fear, the professional was very complimentary about how I was dealing with my child and asked about how I knew what to do. My response? “Because that is what I would do for myself.”
You see, I can be a shy and anxious person — a bit of a Fanny Price. When I was young, my anxiety was an asset for my mother who could say, “Stay here, while I go (do whatever). I don’t want you to get lost.” Well, I did not want to get lost either, so I would stand, glued to that spot until she returned. However, this anxiety was also an exploitable thing for my older sister and my aunt, who is only six years older than I am. They had great fun telling me scary stories! (My sister says they did it because I was an annoying tag-a-long, which might be true. 🙂 )
If my anxiety only kept me from harm or out of my sister’s hair, it would not be much of a concern. But, it was not a small thing. It was, and is, something that I have spent my lifetime stubbornly refusing to allow the upper hand (on most occasions).
At the end of my interview at the children’s hospital, I was told that my son qualified for the program but that he was still a little too young to participate. Instead, my husband and I were given the opportunity to attend classes for parents of anxious children. It was a fantastic experience!
One of the things that we learned about in the class was Worry Dragons, which is a way of talking to young children about their fears. You see, everyone has at least one Worry Dragon. And, Worry Dragons can be very good because they keep us safe. But they can also become big and bossy, and then they are not good. [Of course, this concept absolutely begged me to write a story for my child, which I did. And if you would like to read it, it can be found here.]
So let’s see if we can bring this back to Jane Austen, shall we? I have recently been thinking about Worry Dragons in relation to the character of Elizabeth Bennet. I think it is safe to say that we admire Elizabeth’s wit and indomitable spirit and that sometimes we view her as almost fearless. But let’s consider this quote for a moment.
“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
To me, I see this as a declaration of indomitableness but not of fearlessness. She cannot bear to be frightened does not mean she is not frightened. Her courage rises at the attempt to intimidate does not mean that she is not intimidated. She feels fear. She feels intimidation. But, she stubbornly refuses to allow those Worry Dragons to become big and bossy, and in so doing, she displays a courage that I admire.
What began my contemplation on this aspect of Elizabeth’s character was a comment from a reader of Her Father’s Choice. In this story, Elizabeth is forced to accept a betrothal to Darcy when they are found alone in the library during the Netherfield Ball. She struggles with the idea of marrying a man she thinks she does not like and shows some fear about her future. The comment was asked right around this point in the story:
Elizabeth stood looking out the front window of her uncle’s house in Gracechurch Street, watching Darcy’s coach make its way through the early evening traffic. She pulled in her lip and bit it softly as she considered the man within the coach. As she had promised Jane two days ago, she had questioned everything about him. Yesterday, she had questioned him in regards to his attention to his tenants and his staff. She had asked him of his father and of his steward. She had even dared to ask about his supposed betrothal to his cousin. He had patiently borne all her inquiries. She was beginning to run out of questions about his character, which left her in a very uncomfortable state, for she knew that she must also examine her own character, a character that seemed wanting, having so misjudged Mr. Darcy, a character which had fallen easy prey to the pretty words of a charmer. She sighed.
Mrs. Gardiner placed an arm around Elizabeth’s shoulders. “He seems very pleasant.”
“A right proper gentleman,” agreed her uncle.
“Not at all as you described,” said her aunt softly.
Elizabeth’s shoulders lifted slightly and then dropped. “I may have misjudged him.” She turned sad eyes to her aunt. “I do not know who he is. I was so sure I knew, but I do not.”
“Ah, my dear. Something tells me you know more than you will allow yourself to admit.” Mrs. Gardiner turned Elizabeth away from the window. “We should get you and Mary installed in your room.” She led Elizabeth from the room and started up the stairs. “You will, of course, have to share your story of how you became betrothed to a man you were so set against. I have had your father’s version, but I would like to hear yours.” She turned to the right at the top of the stairs and opened the second door on her left. “Your uncle has brought home some lovely laces and a few pieces of silk he thought you might like. I have to say, your uncle has an excellent eye for colour. You would look lovely in all of them, so you shall have a dress from each. Mrs. Havelston has lent me her book of fashions. She knows how much you dislike spending hours in her shop choosing fabrics and patterns, and our time is limited.”
Elizabeth sat heavily on the bed while Mary opened a trunk and began the task of unpacking. “It is all too much.”
“Are you indeed your mother’s daughter?” Mrs. Gardiner crossed her arms and gave Elizabeth an amused but quizzical look.
A small laugh escaped Mary. “She has been for three days now.”
“You have been a ball of nerves ever since the ball,” explained Mary.
“I am being forced to marry a man I barely know because my aunt created a scene. You would not be a picture of serenity either if it were you.”
Mary shrugged. “Perhaps I would be as distraught as you if I were to be forced to marry a wealthy, handsome gentleman who obviously cared for me, but I rather doubt it.” Mary hung a gown in the wardrobe. “Mr. Darcy is not so very bad. You could have to marry Mr. Collins.”
“You don’t know him. You can’t be the mistress of an estate the size of Pemberley. How can you think your future will be happy?” asks the Worry Dragon.
And poor Elizabeth, who has not yet come to the point of being able to reply, “Because he is good and honorable and because I love him,” must decide to either remain in her Worry Dragon’s shadow or allow her courage to rise.
And that got me thinking about how fear and courage are so inextricably tied.
Can there be courage in the absence of fear? Or is courage only present when there is fear? What do you think?