When I was a small child, I suffered from night terrors. I would awaken screaming, scared out of my wits by something I could not fully explain to my concerned parents. “Spiders,” was all I could tell them. “Spiders.”
We learn most of our fears from experience and observation: fear of physical injury or failing health, fear of losing a job or a home, fear of not having enough food or money. We learn to fear the intangibles, too, loss in a hundred forms: loneliness, a broken heart, the unknown.
But it seems we are born to other fears, unreasoning terrors that arise so abruptly and powerfully that they appear encoded in our DNA. Fear of spiders is so common that it’s routinely exploited by pop culture, from the 1957 sci-fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man, in which the ever-smaller human protagonist fights to the death with a relatively gigantic spider, to the 1990 film Arachnophobia.
There is probably a rational evolutionary explanation for such seemingly irrational fears, associated as they are with creatures who are sometimes poisonous and thus potentially dangerous. But simply understanding the origin of a particular fear does little to assuage it, and that has ramifications beyond our own discomfort, because fear catalyzes aggression: I cannot say how many spiders I killed over the years simply because I was scared of them.
I don’t do that anymore. I can’t say exactly when or how I lost my terror of arachnids, but I suspect I owe a lot to reading E.B. White’s classic children’s book, “Charlotte’s Web.” It’s an irresistibly tender tale, in which a kindly barn spider saves the life of her porcine pal Wilbur by weaving his praises into her web –“some pig,” “radiant,” “terrific” — much to the wonderment of the locals, who decide he’s too special for the butcher. Spoiler alert: Charlotte dies, but Wilbur saves her progeny by transporting her egg sac to a safe place and standing guard until it hatches.
Decades later, as a gardener, I found a banded garden spider — Argiope trifasciata, an orb-weaver related to Charlotte — in my strawberry patch. I paused long enough to let the familiar terror roll over me, took a deep breath, and then slowly bent down, close enough to see the loveliness of her markings and the intricacy of her web. And my fear gave way to wonder.
Thereafter, I found myself looking forward to seeing her each morning as the sun warmed the garden, to observing the artistry of the silken architecture she maintained assiduously against the struggles of prey and gusts of wind. As summer turned to early fall, I watched her grow large, and then, suddenly, small again, having deposited her egg sac beneath fallen leaves.
And then the weather broke cold, and she was gone. I missed her.
I never saw her progeny, though I looked hopefully the next spring. But I did happen upon another hatch of spiderlings, hundreds of tiny white bodies bursting from a tough papery sac on a shrub in the side yard. Like Charlotte’s babies, they dispersed quickly in a light wind, and, like Wilbur, I was sad to see them go.
I would be lying if I said I am completely over my fright; simply searching through photographs of spiders for this post gave me the willies. Yet I am surprised, still and always, at the power of attention to banish fear and engender appreciation. Even my ancient arachnophobia — an unreasoning terror, impervious to logic — ultimately yielded to the simple power of presence.
It’s a good thing to remember, as any of the thousand fears to which we are prey threaten to consume us:
Pause. Breathe. Look.