Drama on the O’Keefe Rail Trail

How fear can derail our life:

This story, although not entirely factual, has a smattering of truth. It also points to something deeper, the threat posed by our hidden fears.

I regularly walk along a section of the O’Keefe Rail Trail. I share the path with cyclists and walkers and the occasional jogger. Often, I am alone and am appreciative of the solitude.

I normally walk as far as Pratts Park Road, rest awhile, and then return by the same route. On this occasion I was feeling positive, energetic, ready to extend myself.

The next section of the trail is described as ‘bushland’, more secluded, less exposed to human activity. The dense foliage and overhanging branches offer sanctuary. The noises are of birds, ravens, magpies, and wattlebirds, and of wind in the canopy.

I began enthusiastically, striding confidently, enjoying the freshness and the dappled light.

Five hundred metres into my extended walk something caught my eye. On my right, a short distance from the path, stood a large kangaroo, imposing, straight backed, watchful. I acknowledged his presence with a nod and hoped he would stay where he was. I was happy with the space between us and had no desire to become better acquainted. His eyes were locked on me as I passed him by.

The calmness I had felt earlier had been replaced by a nervousness. I was agitated, hyper attentive, wary of further interruptions.

I continued walking without further incident. until I noticed a bend in the path. A large dog lumbered into view. He looked like a wolf, so I called him ‘Wolf Dog’. He didn’t appear to be on a leash and there was no sight of the owner.

I am ambivalent toward dogs. Don’t get me wrong, I like dogs, but I lack confidence in handling aggressive dogs. They sense my growing anxiety which excites them further.

I had an unfortunate experience when I was a young boy of five or six years old. Every Christmas holiday we would stay with my grandma who lived on a dairy farm with her son and his family. Grandma had a small cottage with sloping floors. She was reliant on a wood stove, a water tank, and kerosene lanterns. It was a simple life.

As I approached her front door one of the cattle dogs blocked the path. He was eating from a bowl. As I tried to manoeuvre past, he leapt up and grabbed me by the wrist. His teeth punctured a vein so there was blood and screaming and a general state of confusion. Fortunately, help was near at hand and the dog was led away, his tail between his legs.

As I watched the Wolf Dog, I decided I couldn’t take any risks. Avoidance seemed the best option. I turned around and started jogging, increasing my tempo when I thought he might be following. I passed the tall, upright kangaroo again. He seemed fixed to the spot but I’m sure I saw a look of sinister delight on his face. He wanted a part of the action.

Shortly after, I was brought to a halt. A fox darted across the path, hiding in the dense undergrowth. I could see his brown eyes. They seemed to sparkle. His impressive teeth were also on show.

Reality struck. I needed to keep moving. I took off but my legs were tight. Looking over my right shoulder I saw Wolf Dog, the kangaroo, and the beady eyed fox closing in.

It was then I snagged my toe on a protruding rock. I soared like a missile only to crash face first on the gravel path. I was hurt, winded, exhausted, and resigned. I wondered whether I could survive.

Fear can have a crippling effect. It can derail our lives, denying us the opportunity to flourish.

There are three fears I want to talk about.

  • The fear of abandonment
  • The fear of estrangement
  • The fear of letting go

The fear of abandonment:

The fear of abandonment is arguably one of the most common and most dangerous fears of all.

We know what abandonment looks like. We have seen it at the movies. A newborn baby is left on the steps of a police station.

The fear of abandonment is the fear of betrayal, of being diminished, disposable, overlooked, forgotten.

Abandonment can be physical, a fear that someone you love is going to leave and not come back.

In M L Stedman’s novel, The Light Between Oceans, the beautiful and inquisitive Isabel is dealt a severe blow when her two brothers go off to war, never to come back, their young bodies left to lie in the mud far away. The experience of abandonment taught her that

‘Life could snatch away the things you treasured, and there was no getting them back.’

Our sense of abandonment is often layered. When Isabel married Tom, the lighthouse keeper, she desperately wanted a baby. Tragically, her pregnancies all ended in a pool of blood. The life she nurtured within was torn from her and she felt broken, distraught, lost. Her sense of self had been shaken. To be denied that which you desire is to be robbed of a sense of purpose and stripped of hope.

Abandonment can also be emotional. We fostered a young boy with special needs. He was born with cerebral palsy. We were told his mother rejected him at birth. He spent most days in a darkened room.

I can’t justify her actions, but I can surmise what she was feeling – the guilt, the shame, the sense of inadequacy. And then there was the fact of her partner being in gaol.

She tried to erase any emotional connection she had with the child. Clearly, she didn’t want him in her life.

The withdrawal of emotional support gives rise to feelings of abandonment.

Many people in my part of the world are experiencing a shared sense of abandonment. I live in Victoria, Australia. Our state government adopted extreme measures to manage the pandemic. There were lockdowns – snap lockdowns, localised lockdowns, extended lockdowns. For months we were bombarded with messages about mask wearing, testing, isolating, and vaccinations – Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna – and now the doozie of them all – mandates.

A mandate is having someone tell you what is best for you while highlighting the consequences of noncompliance. A mandate allows no room for weighing up the facts or thinking your own thoughts. Mandates are dictatorial. They reduce society to herd status. To stand apart from the herd can have serious consequences limiting your social participation and casting doubts over your value to society.

Fear has driven the state governments response to the COVID 19 crisis. They talk of the fear of death; the fear of contracting the virus, of being a spreader; the fear of being a risk to your loved ones and the wider community; the fear of not doing your part to ease restrictions; the fear of being hit with a massive fine or imprisonment for not adhering to health orders.

I fear that as a society we are drifting towards totalitarianism, abandoning what makes us human.

Totalitarianism is generally identified by dictatorial centralised rule dedicated to controlling all public and private aspects of individual life, to the benefit of the state, through coercion, intimidation, and repression. ThoughtCo

The fear of abandonment is the fear of not existing.

The fear of estrangement:

Estrangement occurs when the elastic band we have been holding on to finally snaps. It occurs when there has been a breach of trust. It need not be permanent but often it lasts a lifetime. Love has a way of healing the wounds of separation.

You will recall my mention of the novel The Light Between Oceans. Tom and Isabel were well suited. Their love ran deep. But Tom could find no peace. He made a difficult but courageous decision. In choosing to honour the truth he dealt his wife a severe blow. She could not forgive him, believing he had destroyed their hope of happiness. But love endures, love heals, love stays the course. Although estranged, there was a glimmer of hope.

Estrangement is the product of broken promises, of language divested of all meaning, of unreasonable and unrealistic expectations.

The working from home rules during COVID placed additional pressures on businesses and in many instances, undermined workplace cultures. Employees found they were working longer hours for less recognition. Zoom meetings failed to achieve the connection that unites people and fosters teamwork.

Many workers experienced feelings of estrangement, that a bond had been broken, that they were no longer valued. When feelings of estrangement are left unresolved there is a drifting apart and sometimes it is permanent.

The fear of letting go:

The fear of letting go is linked to the fear of change, the fear of uncertainty, the fear of loss. Movement in our life is not always easily detected. A boat at anchor on a calm sea appears still, but there is movement. The cause may be a gentle breeze caressing the surface of the water or a contrary current below. The boat surrenders to the forces at play, adjusts, and resumes its place.

Letting go is sometimes foisted upon us. We may have no inkling of what awaits us. In his memoir, Walking With Ghosts, Gabriel Byrne talks about his relationship with his father, of standing beneath the trees to take shelter from the rain, watching a field being ploughed.

His father worked at the Guinness Brewery. He was a coopers’ labourer, hauling and shaving and planing wood for the staved barrels that would be rolled to the trucks and ferried off to the docks for England.

Despite thirty years of service, one day he was told he was no longer needed. He found himself on the scrap heap at forty-eight years of age, to young to retire and too old to find another job in a changing world.

It is impossible to comprehend the full impact of the pandemic on our way of life. The state government’s messaging is according to script. ‘We are about saving lives.’ Why then do I feel that I am dying by degrees? The loss of freedom, the loss of choice, the loss of feeling in control, the loss of social cohesion, the loss of hope in a fair and just society. I am being forced to let go of what I don’t want to let go of, and I am fearful.

The story I told earlier gives us insight into fear. Our hidden fears are exacerbated by what we experience day to day. Our fears can link arms, adding to their potency. Running from our fears is not the answer. If anything, they will track us down and overwhelm us. Fears are to be confronted, to be stared down, to be seen for what they are. Don’t allow your fears to dismantle your life. No one wants to die in fear.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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