Shadow beliefs and giant centipedes
One of the neighbor girls was here the other day. As soon as she walked in the door, I could tell that something was wrong. She sat anxiously on the edge of the couch for a while, half-heartedly playing with the kids, her mind elsewhere.
Finally, she said what she had obviously been waiting to say: “Miss Jennifer, can I talk to you about something?”
“Sure,” I said. I was more than happy to offer her soothing words of comfort and wisdom for whatever it was that troubled her.
“Well…you see…” she struggled to find the right words. “I woke up at five o’clock in the morning with a huge centipede crawling on my face. I’m still freaked out about it.”
I pondered her words for a moment. Then I replied, “A WHAT??? A CENTIPEDE??!?!? ONE OF THOSE MASSIVE BLACK ONES WITH A RED HEAD? IT WAS ON YOUR FACE? YOUR FACE?!?!? IT’S GOING TO GET YOU AGAIN AND I’LL BE NEXT AND OH MY GOSH WE ALL HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE NOW NOW NOW NOW NOW!!!!!!!!!”
Lest you think I was overreacting, let me show you a picture of what she was talking about. I took this shot with my cell phone camera after Yaya called to tell me that she found “a scary centipede” in her yard.
Yaya has been known to stomp big, hairy spiders when she’s not wearing shoes, crush wasps with her bare hands, and absent-mindedly knock down yellowjacket nests and then just stand there. When Yaya describes a bug as “scary,” it’s time for people like me to grab a hazmat suit and a blowtorch.
The Dallas zoo calls these things “fast moving and aggressive titans.” They are poisonous, their venom is extremely painful, and they can sting with with their legs JUST BY CRAWLING ON YOU.
And my teenage neighbor had one all over her face.
While she slept.
When I stopped screaming to hyperventilate, she told me the rest of the horrifying details: when she brushed the centipede off her face it began racing down her body. She could feel it, but couldn’t see it well in the dark. She jumped up and turned on the light, and finally managed to get it off of her. She got one glimpse of it before it slithered into a pile of junk under her bed. She was not able to find it again.
“I’m so stressed that it’s going to come back, and what happened to my mom will happen to me,” she said.
And that was my cue to change the subject. If I had any care for my own sanity, I would have assumed that whatever happened to her mom was something lovely and immediately changed the subject by asking her if kids are still into Justin Bieber these days. Instead, I spoke the words that guaranteed that I would never get a good night’s sleep again so long as I live in this house: “What happened to your mom?”
Her answer was worse than I could have imagined. “She had a scorpion sting her while she was sleeping. But it got caught in her hair, and she couldn’t get it out.”
Of all the “poisonous bugs attacking me in my sleep” scenarios I have so carefully thought out, never had it occurred to me that one could get caught in my hair. My hair. While I was making a mental note to start a Cute Buzz Cuts hairstyle board on Pinterest, my neighbor friend continued:
“How am I ever going to be able to sleep in my room again?” she asked.
“You can’t,” I said wisely. “I know that arson is technically illegal, but I think your insurance company might be sympathetic if you explained that you just have to burn down your house and start over.” (I added a caveat that she should first run it by her mom, who would undoubtedly agree that it’s the only solution.)
When Joe got home that evening, I breathlessly recounted the story to him. I even told him about the part where our young neighbor’s mother began tearing out her hair and clawing at her own eyes as she became frantic with terror when the scorpion kept attacking her and all her efforts to stop it only embedded it more deeply in her hair (I was not told that part of the story, but obviously it must have happened).
I waited for Joe to duck and cover and start shouting “Don’t let the bad bugs hurt me!” But instead he rolled his eyes.
“I’m sorry. I guess you didn’t hear me,” I said. I raised my voice and spoke more clearly as I reiterated the facts: “I am talking about scorpions and hideous centipedes. Attacking people. While they sleep. People who live five houses down from us.”
“Whatever. If a centipede stung me I’d just kill it and be done with it. I wouldn’t do all this blah-blah-blah talking about it.”
“The point of talking about it is to process it.”
“I’d process it by killing it.”
“I assure you that you would have at least a few things to say about it if it ever happened to you.”
“That’s moot, because it won’t happen to me. I am never going to get stung in bed by a centipede, a scorpion, or anything else.”
I gasped. I glanced around the room in horror, half expecting to see a giant centipede crawling on the ceiling above me, called down by Joe’s fate-tempting words. “You can’t say that!” I screeched. “Now we’re definitely going to be attacked by centipedes and scorpions! Lots of them! Probably tonight!”
Joe gave me a look that seemed to indicate that he’d just reached his daily quota for listening to crazy talk, and he left to change out of his suit. I, however, was not done with the subject. Nay, I had not even begun obsessing about it.
That night, at approximately 1:14 AM, I found myself having a delirious internal debate about whether the centipede that was about to attack me would get into the bed by creeping up the bedpost, falling from the ceiling, or crawling up the part of the comforter that touched the floor. I think it was around 1:48 that it hit me:
I really believe this. On some level — not the conscious part of my brain, but a deep level that has plenty of sway over my actions nonetheless — I accept it as a truth about the world that Joe is able to control the local bug population through his words.
In my defense, I see how I could develop this view. There was the time that I wrote a blog post saying that we hadn’t seen a scorpion in months, and only minutes later my son got stung in the face while he was sitting on the couch. Then there was the time we had one of our priests, Fr. Jonathan Raia, over for dinner. He was asking me if we’d seen any of our favorite arachnids lately, and while he spoke a large scorpion appeared on the floor, crawling directly toward us.
So my superstitions about small stinging things are understandable. But it got me thinking about all the other types of similar “truths” I have tucked away in my mind. I’ve come to think of them as “shadow truths”: ideas that I would not assent to if we were to sit down and have an open conversation about them, but that I treat as true in my daily life. And it’s surprising how often they impact my actions.
(Surprise! This post actually does have a point other than whining about the fact that I live in an environment inhospitable to human life.)
It is amazing how frequently I act like something is true that I do not actually think is true. All of the following thoughts have crossed my mind in recent days:
- “I can’t tell my friend about that idea exciting idea I have for my next book, because if I speak of it it won’t work out.”
- “The last two times I put the baby in the blue pajamas he woke up at night, so they are obviously cursed and should never be worn again.”
- “We had a great week last week, so now I’ve spent all my cosmic goodness and we can’t have a good week again this week.”
- “The last few times I checked our bank balance from my tablet the number was really bad, so I shouldn’t check my bank balance from my tablet anymore.”
- “If I check my email too often, that important reply I’m waiting for won’t come in.”
I mean, if you were to sit me down and say, “Jen, do you believe that you can control when another person replies to an email by the number of times you hit Refresh on your Gmail account in a day?” I would laugh and say no. On an intellectual level, I know that that is false.
But there is a part of me that believes, and believes very strongly, that this is true.
It’s interesting to note that these superstitions crop up most powerfully in the areas where I have the most attachments: my writing, sleep, money, not being stung in the face by gigantic centipedes in the middle of the night. These are the parts of my life that I am least willing to turn over to God, because I have a white-knuckle attachment to them turning out a certain way. In a way, it’s oddly comforting to think that Joe can call centipedes into our house with mere words — because that means that by not speaking the words, he has the power to keep them out.
So one of the things I’ve been working on lately is dragging all of these shadow beliefs out of the recesses of my mind, examining them in the light, and making the conscious choice to reject the ones that are false. What I’ve found is that, more than anything, it’s a process of letting go of control. It’s a process of accepting that I am me and God is God and, given those circumstances, it’s really for the best that I am not actually running the show. It’s a process of relaxing and not wanting to force my will on the outcome of everything all the time. And, in that sense, it’s ultimately a process of becoming free.
(But I am still going to scream and plug my ears next time Joe says we’ll never be stung at night by centipedes. Just in case.)