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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Facing our fears can change our world

Kathleen McQuillan
Posted 10/11/23

I am a longtime radio fan. One of my favorite stops on the dial is 91.7 KAXE-FM, broadcasting out of Grand Rapids. I first discovered “Northern Community Radio” in 1979, soon after moving …

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Facing our fears can change our world


I am a longtime radio fan. One of my favorite stops on the dial is 91.7 KAXE-FM, broadcasting out of Grand Rapids. I first discovered “Northern Community Radio” in 1979, soon after moving here from Oregon. KAXE was founded in 1976 by a couple of radio pioneers and has weathered many challenges since then. With its interesting mix of programming, it’s now a trusted companion and a solid fixture on northern Minnesota’s arid broadcast media landscape.
In recent weeks, I stumbled upon one of their weekly programs produced and hosted by former director — now volunteer, Michael Goldberg. “Stay Human” is a compilation of stories from local contributors and selected music with a theme. This particular week, the program was about “Facing Our Fears”. As I listened to one tale after another — some humorous and others spine-tingling — this “theater of the mind” exerted a power that pulled up one of my worst phobias, one that I’d struggled with for as long as I could remember. Spiders!
Not tiny ones like I see crawling around on my hay bales. They’re actually kind of cute. And not the slinky daddy-long-legs that entertained me as a child. I’m talking about those big brown and black ones, commonly known as wolf spiders. I have a fifty-year old log house that has lots of cracks and crevices, prime habitat for these giant creepy crawly critters.
Every year in early summer, my anxiety begins to rise. June is when I expect to see my first big spider. I think we unknowingly co-exist prior to this, but somehow I’m able to live in a semi-state of denial. Maybe it’s the notion, “What you don’t see won’t hurt you.” But then they begin to reveal themselves and that’s when the trouble starts. For years, every “out-of-nowhere” appearance elicits the same response. You’ve maybe heard of a “peak experience”. Well, I call mine an “Eeek! experience”. I quickly grab a broom, give the thing a whack (just enough to stun it), and then a quick sweep out the door! As I’ve “matured”, I’ve begun to question myself about this behavior. I want to believe that all God’s creatures have a valued place in Creation. I would try to develop a new approach.
Now I keep a wide-mouth Mason jar within reach at all times. When a sighting occurs, I move very slowly, carefully placing the jar over the arachnid. I gently slide the flat lid beneath the jar so as not to snag one of its legs. Holding the lid on tight, I carry it to the edge of the woods and give it a gentle fling with a prayer that he won’t find his way back home. I feel myself relax the moment I turn to walk away. Another successful catch and release.
Normally, I have to do this two to three times a season. Then they just seem to be gone. But this summer was different. Lots of things this summer were different! Besides being invaded by record-setting hordes of mosquitoes; blanketed by smoke from Canada’s forest fires for weeks; scorched by record-breaking heat; gardens shriveled from lack of rain — my number of spider sightings quadrupled. And, they showed up in the weirdest creepiest places. My phobic anxiety returned to an all-time high.
I became afraid to reach for my bath towel. I couldn’t step from my bed before scanning the floor around me for some unwanted pest. And, never would I enter or exit through the Magic Mesh without first conducting a thorough search around my front door. I’d found them in closets, under shoes, day and night. I was on perpetual alert the entire summer. Even when in bed, I’d bolt from a deep sleep frantically brushing some imagined spider from my arm.
After weeks of hyper-vigilance, I was exhausted from living in fear. I needed to deal with it, but I wasn’t sure how. Then, a distant voice of one of my children returned, “Mom, just Google it.” I began another round in my boxing match with my fear.
I learned that spiders are equipped with a highly sensitive capacity to detect a foreign presence from yards away. And like bees, they can sense our “fear hormones” which trigger their defense systems. Just those two small bits of information helped me understand why spiders always seem to reveal themselves right before I’m about to touch them. Their doing so always gives me an opportunity to step away before inadvertently harming them. And if I could tame my fear, they would be less threatened and less likely to bite. This information showed me how we might co-exist even in one another’s presence. I liked this new found path toward detente.
I conceded. I’d never had a serious spider bite. In fact, spiders had always seemed quite passive, just poised wherever I found them. And never did a disaster ensue. They had never exhibited an overt intent to harm. My fear was never based on a show of their aggression. In fact, I was the one who had upset their world.
For the past two months I’d been chopping, chiseling, sanding, and staining the outside of my house in my effort to refurbish the logs. I had removed rot, filled cracks and holes, applied powerful chemicals to deter invading insects, and applied a toxic stain. I was equipped with dust masks, ear protection, gloves, and respirators to reduce any risks to me, but the spiders had nothing of the sort. All those poor eight-leggeds were escaping the mayhem that I was creating. Moving indoors was their desperate attempt to find refuge.
When I collected my next visitor, I took time to examine his physical structure and marvel at his jointed legs, his head, what looked like bulging eyes and his mandibles. I felt the wonder in this creature for which I had only felt fear. In that moment I was overwhelmed with empathy and respect. I had conquered my fear. I recalled the radio storytellers describing their transformations.
The young man, after harnessing his terror. scaled his first glacier. An eighty-year-old woman and her daughter parachuted from an airplane and once having tamed their churning tummies, discovered the thrill of free-falling. A woman, terrified of heights, forced herself to climb onto her snowy roof to clean her plugged chimney and described her surge of pride and confidence that stayed with her thereafter. And the girl who, with some expert support, overcame her phobia of snakes, holding one up close and marveling at its beauty. Their courage was contagious. And their success had inspired mine.
We can face our fears and grow beyond them. And it feels good. Tapping our courage can change our lives. Knowledge and understanding can dispel fear and offer a way forward, enlightening us to the value of other species — and other humans — beings we label “the others” because they are different.
Courage and knowledge are needed to reach understanding — all ingredients that make it possible for us to live together. And oh, do we need to learn to live together. I think it starts by facing our fears.Now onto my next endeavor — ticks!