A little over a week ago, on a typical Thursday evening, I found myself at Urgent Care with three paper towels wrapped around my right index finger, blood already through the first two and threatening to soak through the third. 30 minutes earlier, I had been asleep in my bed, blissfully unaware of the traumatic events about to take place.
Like any misfortune, the blame for my bleeding finger can easily be traced back to the world’s worst vegetable: onions. As much as I despise this smelly food, I have found it impossible to avoid when following the recipes of people who know far more about cooking than I do. So, when I began the process that promised delicious Chana Masala, I had to chop up the food equivalent of the devil.
Surprisingly, it was not the brand new, sharp paring knife that sliced my finger open. Rather, it was the broken glass that, for the past four months, had sat benignly next to the soap on our kitchen sink (the fact that it was there for four months does not make the onion innocent). You see, when I went to wash all traces of the onion from my fingers, lest its juices corrupt my skin, my hand decided to miss the soap and land instead on that unassuming broken glass. The glass happened to have a distinctly triangular edge that my finger happened to land on almost perfectly. The blood started gushing immediately and once I convinced my roommates that my finger actually was in peril that necessitated medical attention, I rushed off to Urgent Care, where they healed me with three bright blue stitches.
What struck me from this experience was not the image of blood flowing from a deep cut into my kitchen sink while my roommates advised me to simply put some pressure on it, nor was it the two hours I spent at Urgent Care mostly waiting for any treatment other than the recording of my blood pressure. No, the thing that I find most intriguing was the complete absence of pain when the actual finger-puncturing took place. I have cut my fingers countless times before, but never this deep, so I would expect it to hurt quite a bit. But when it happened, I felt nothing, not even the pressure of the glass.
I don’t know enough about the human brain or the nervous system to even attempt to explain the biological processes behind this phenomenon, but I do think that fear (or in this case, the lack thereof) has something to do with it. My new favorite podcast, Invisibilia, just devoted an entire hour to the relationship between humans and fear, and their basic hypothesis is that while we all experience fear, we all also have the ability to overcome it. No one, except someone with a completely calcified amygdala, is fearless, but we need not let fear interfere with our lives.
To return to the case of my painless finger stab, I think that the reason it did not hurt is because there was no part of my brain that anticipated this as a possibility. Had my eyes noticed the broken glass next to the soap and noted the inherent risk, my brain might have prepped my nerves for the possible incision. Had I feared the glass, my bleeding finger would be an actualization of those fears rather than an incalculable accident, and I think it would have hurt.
Following this logic, it seems to me that when our fears become reality, it is painful not because of the thing we fear itself, but because of the thoughts and beliefs that surround it from our own manifestations. A lot of people are afraid of spiders. Spiders are almost always harmless, and even their physical presence on our skin is in itself not an uncomfortable thing–a virtually weightless creature will not disrupt any of our activities. The fear that accompanies them comes in when people spend so much time associating spiders with creepiness or venom or bites before they even interact with them. Then, when the spider itself becomes physically relevant, these people automatically revert to the mindset of fear they have grown to associate with spiders.
Another common fear–and one that Invisibilia discusses in detail–is the fear of rejection. Whether this is in dating, job-searching, or creative work, virtually everyone can relate to the fear that we might not be good enough or we might not be wanted. This often leads to inaction. Last weekend, I found myself stuck in a state of being where I felt inadequate and powerless. I had a lot of hopes and plans and dreams, like I always do, but I was not willing to take the necessary steps to get there because I feared failure, which is really just rejection from my ideal self. Eventually, I just started doing things, anything that would get me closer to where I wanted to be. I filled out forms and made appointments and went to bed on time, and soon my fears became fleeting thoughts that rarely entered my mind.
When I took steps to directly reject my fears, I cultivated a mindset that is in a lot of ways more rational, but also one equally open to all possibilities, not just the best ones. And this is a pretty empowering place to be. If I had feared that broken glass, or even the innate evilness of the onion, then I would have felt every inch of that edge pierce my skin. Or I might not have chopped anything in the first place because I anticipated the consequences. But since I sliced that onion and attempted to wash my hands fearlessly, I received only a painless wound and a scar that tells the story of how I learned to ignore fear in the pursuit of excellent things. Nonetheless, I still hate onions.