“The Fear of Angels”

Today I had intended to go on with my story – I stopped last night in the middle of the struggle for my life that I can scarcely believe happened only three years ago. But revisiting that time really has been far more draining than I expected; I’ve been anxious and unsettled all day, and I know it’s not just because today was my day to have coffee. I need a break from the telling. We’ll see how I feel tomorrow.

I’m thinking tonight about a particular poem by May Sarton, who pretty much comes second, after Rilke, as my favourite poet. Her words and images have so often provoked an “Ah, yes!” response in me, explained some part of life I didn’t quite have words for. This poem was written as part of a cycle she dedicated to her psychiatrist, as they travelled the difficult path of the therapeutic process together.

The Fear of Angels
by May Sarton

It is not what they intend,
But we are light-struck,
Blinded by their presence,
When all they want is to see us.

We have to turn away,
Cannot look at the huge, deep Unknown
That speaks through their eyes.
They strip us down to the infant gaze
Still deep in the sky,
Still rooted somewhere we cannot remember.

Angel, look away.
I cannot afford to yield the last defense,
To go back—

“Not back, but deeper,”
Said the angel, folding his wings.


Reading this now, at this time in my life, a whole new revelation comes to me. I’ve often told myself that the act of going back, the dredging up memories, was the difficult part. When really, that’s just mechanics. It’s the emotion involved in reliving my past, what it did to me, how it made me who I am that has always frightened me. I can talk at length about the details of my illness, of the abuse I suffered as a child, the disappointment of my attempt at religious life – but that has been, for the most part, a way to keep the feelings about those events at bay. Talking about these things only requires my mind, my brain. Feeling the physical suffering I’ve experienced, the emotional abandonment and loss . . . “I cannot afford to yield the last defense. . . .” I fear those feelings far too much. I am afraid of “deeper”, of more pain.

But, tired and fearful as I am at this moment, I know that I have to learn to “look” and not just tell – I have to prove to myself that there are things I need no longer fear. That I am as strong as I’ve always been told I am. I’ve been avoiding these emotions far too long, and it does not serve me.  There was a time where this last defense, living in my head and not my body, was necessary in order to survive – but that time is long past.

Experiencing the emotions I’ve always avoided, despite the terror they bring with them, is also bearing witness to others who have suffered that even the most horrible events of a life can be survived, overcome, learned from, and left – finally – in the past, where they belong. That healing can be just as much a truth of life as scars.


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