Dueling With Ghosts


I’m nearing the conclusion of Shirley Jackson’s classic horror novel, The Haunting of Hill House, so ghosts must be on my mind these days. Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m reading this book in bed to help me fall sleep.

This might explain why, as I was just awakening in the pre-dawn dark the other morning, a searing thought came from nowhere: “I’m dueling with ghosts.”

A psychotherapist might disagree, but I don’t think I’m alone in fighting phantasms of my own conjuring.

For example, why do I continue to hold grudges—for decades—against people who wronged me? Like that boss at IBM who held me back from promotion at a critical time in my career thirty years ago.

Against whom am I continuously competing? Why—when it comes to my particular area of expertise—do I need to be best?

Why do I continue to care how others judge me? Since I was a child, I’ve had the vague feeling that I am being watched and weighed whenever I leave the house—whether I’m on the street, at a social gathering, even in church.

And what about jealousy? When will I get over my jealousy of Mr. Blue Eyes, who my own wife couldn’t take her eyes off?

How long will it take me to wholeheartedly forgive an intimate friend’s infidelity and thereby heal my hurt?

All these ghosts feed on fear.

Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu is credited with saying, “There is no illusion greater than fear.”

Watch a bird approach a birdbath. It moves in quick, nervous anticipation of danger. It jerks its head to look up, around and behind. Anything out of the ordinary and in a blink it beats its way to a high branch. Instinct warns the bird that with its beak and its gaze down to the water, it is vulnerable.

When our prehistoric ancestors dwelled on the plains of Africa, they must have been—like the bird—ceaselessly on the lookout for danger to their person or attack on their territory.   

We still harbor these instincts deep within, I think. Why else do we need to control everything in our purview—from our health and safety to our work to our social and romantic relationships to our idea of self?

Even in our relationship with our creator, surrendering our will to his seems an insurmountable endeavor.

The author of the young-adult novel series, Anne of Green Gables, captured what I’m trying to say. Here is Lucy Maud Montgomery, writing in her 1926 novel, The Blue Castle. See if it doesn’t speak to you, as it does to me:

“Fear is the original sin,” suddenly said a still, small voice away back—back—back of Valancy’s consciousness.

“Almost all the evil in the world has its origin in the fact that some one is afraid of something.”

Valancy stood up. She was still in the clutches of fear, but her soul was her own again. She would not be false to that inner voice.”

Fear is a "cold, slimy serpent coiling about you," Ms. Montgomery wrote. And like any lethal serpent, it must be slain.

So, yes. In a way, I am dueling with ghosts. Maybe I aways will.

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