How I visualize Dread
If you have followed this blog for a while, you know I’ve written a lot about mortality, finding purpose in life, and the intersection of those with art. I also find engaging in written dialogue to be a fruitful way to explore difficult topics.
I’m back to share an interesting challenge I participated in related to all of these.
When I heard about The Dread Project challenge from the Ten Percent Happier/More Than a Feeling podcast, I decided it would be the perfect thing for me to try. After all, I’m the one who wrote a blog post in 2013 titled Dread and the Married Girl.
And now my conversation, in letters, with Dread.
You and I have known each other for a long time. You came to visit for the first time when I was only 12, as I lay in bed after watching West Side Story, and touched me with the knowledge of my own mortality. Hardly a day has passed since then when I wasn’t aware of Death. You and Death and your friend Anxiety all visit regularly.
What a relief it was to listen to others speaking on the podcast about their relationship with you. Especially about the particular form you take for me: Existential. There’s always relief in discovering we are not alone.
On the first day of the challenge, clinical psychologist and poet Dr. Hala Alyan suggested engaging in a dialogue with you. You may know that I love using my imagination to bestow form to non-corporeal beings and talking to them as part of my writing process.
Dr. Alyan suggested a few questions to kick off. I propose we write to each other, posing and answering questions in each message. My first one for you:
“What are you hoping to achieve?”
It certainly has taken a long time for you to get around to addressing me directly. First, thanks for finally doing that. I could always see how I was freaking you out. Like I was some kind of evildoer. I don’t see myself that way. And I don’t believe I have as much power as you seem to think.
So, what am I hoping to achieve? The obvious answer is: to keep you safe. But if you scratch beneath the surface, that response makes no sense. We both know that my particular form—Existential—involves fear of exactly the thing no one can ever be safe from, my pal Death. And besides, the keep-safe thing is more the job of Anxiety.
What I hope to achieve has everything to do with Life. Specifically, your Life, and keeping you awake to it. Like the Rumi poem says: Don’t go back to sleep. Would you really want to be one of those people who sleepwalks through the days and months and years? Whose concerns never go a millimeter below the surface of anything, whose attention is always on shiny objects? It might seem comfortable. But I think you understand that hollowness lives at the core of such people. That they, when Death comes, are far worse off for having ignored the Big Questions all their lives, that whatever paltry relief their ignorance gained them pales in comparison to the final reckoning.
Going deeper than that, what I’m trying to achieve is to fuel your art. Just think how difficult it would have been, without my presence, for you to have found a lifelong theme worthy of artistic pursuit! Not to take too much credit, but what would you have had to say in the course of six novels if you hadn’t been ruminating on the meaning of life and trying to come to terms with me?
My question for you:
“Have you ever talked to our mutual acquaintance, Death?”
Bye for now,
Until the challenge, I never thought about you having a purpose. You’re right that the surface answer about keeping me safe is bullshit. But the two deeper ideas ring true. And shifting my perspective has given me an insight. Maybe your presence is not a burden but a gift.
I have conversed with Death many times. Sometimes informally, in my head. Other times in written dialogue or poetry. Those conversations, while illuminating in the moment, too often slip away. It’s hard to recall the illumination; the feelings rush back. And once again I find myself in the grips of my ever-present need to control the uncontrollable.
My next question for you:
“How do you think it’s going?”
I await your reply.
My Dear Audrey,
I’m glad what I had to say “resonated” with you, to use that ridiculous vernacular.
I assume you mean how it’s going in relation to what I am hoping to achieve.
Certainly better now that we’re talking!
I started to get serious about my mission with you around the time you wrote that 2014 blog post about the mortality watch. I know what you’re thinking as you’re reminded of that: “Just imagine how much less time I have left now than when I wrote that post!” And I know I’m the one who puts those morbid little thoughts in your head. I can’t help it. It’s my nature and it’s my job.
The bottom line is that it’s going swimmingly. I mean, look at the body of published work you’ve created based on the discomfort I’ve caused! Every one of them containing some element of wrestling with Death.
My next question to you:
“What does it feel like when I come close to you?”
The feeling when you come close is hard to describe. It’s similar to what I feel when Anxiety visits. Not a physical pain, because physical pain has a concrete quality that offers something to hold onto, however unpleasant. Your presence, like Anxiety’s, is amorphous. An invading cloud that penetrates every cell and makes me want to escape my skin. And yet there is no escaping. Like Anxiety, you often overpower the coping tools, like breathing and meditation, that I’ve assembled to get me through my days.
When you’re near, I feel as if I’m about to fall over the edge of something into nothing. I feel profoundly alone. I feel the terror of non-existence. I feel as if the sum of everything I have ever done or achieved or created or thought or cared about amounts to nothing. And when I experience it, the feeling is more than a feeling. It’s certain knowledge.
I realize how difficult it is to describe what it feels like when you are with me. Maybe that’s why I’ve needed half a lifetime and so many hundreds of pages of writing to try.
My last question for you is:
“What is your intention?”
P.S. This is going much better than I anticipated!
Thank you for at least trying to answer my question. And I’m glad this is going better than you thought it would.
My intentions are pure and good. I am not evil. I do what I do because this is my job. It’s the path that is mine to travel. I could have been Curiosity, or Joy, or Playfulness. But this is the hand I’ve been dealt.
My intention is to assist you in finding some sort of peace before you die. I know that’s what you want because you’ve stated it directly more than once. My intention is to fade away before the end—and I hope long before then—so you can enjoy the equanimity you so desperately crave. This wrestling we have done over the years is all part of the process.
I, too, have found this fruitful. I hope we can continue talking and figure out how to get to a place where we feel more comfortable with each other, because I have strong feelings about being around you, too.
But that’s a story for another day.
Until then, please accept a gentle hug.
Want to join the challenge?
The live challenge is over, but you can still listen to all the episodes from More Than A Feeling
- Day 1: Rewrite Your Dread
- Day 2: Dread Without Words
- Day 3: Death, But Fun!
- Day 4: Schedule Your Dread
- Day 5: An Antidote to Ecodread
And now for something decidedly not dreadful…
Over in the Birth Your Truest Story writers’ community, my co-creator Jennifer Browdy and I are busy preparing to launch our newly designed workshop series in early 2023. If you’re a writer, or even thinking about thinking of yourself as a writer, we hope you’ll check out the community. It’s free to join, and we offer a supportive, nurturing environment where you can feel free to let your words take root and grow!
And if you want inspiration, on December 4 I’m offering a short (but intensive!) low-cost workshop, Stir Your Creativity for the New Year, all about drawing on the best of both masculine and feminine energies to deepen your creative work in 2023. You can find out more and register here.
NOTE: This post’s title is both a reference to my sporadic appearance here over the last year (I still live and breathe!) and to the fact that there has been a question around for several years about whether blogging is dead. Consensus seems to be… not exactly.