I was hanging out at home the other afternoon when I noticed a distinctly rat-corpse-like form on my floor. When I first noticed it, I was chatting with a friend. I chose to table issue until he left. As soon as he did, my fear was realized: there was a dead rat with splayed guts on my floor.
I’m not particularly squeamish, but this freaked me out. Rats are dangerous. They carry disease. They’re fast.
I was also confused. While I’d had mice run through my place, a big rat, much less one with protruding and bloody innards, seemed anomalous. It must have gotten in via the two floors above me, which have many entry points. Its guts must have burst open due to some disease, parasite or cannibalistic rat.
However it got there, I had to deal with it, which proved challenging as I could barely look at it, much less handle it.
I put on some full-fingered cycling gloves, got a large, stainless steel kitchen bowl, and neared the corpse. With eyes averted, I slapped the bowl on top of the rat and scurried away, pulse high, breathing short. At least I didn’t have to look at it anymore.
I worked up the courage to approach it again, getting a magazine and sliding it under the bowl to scoop the body up. Fortunately, it wasn’t sticking to the floor, nor did it seem to be moving. Part of my fear was that it was a zombie rat—half-alive, ravenous for human flesh.
It was now trapped between the bowl and the magazine, but I still had to deposit it in the garbage, which would require lifting the bowl and looking at it (I thought about doing the whole operation with eyes closed or blindfolded, but the prospect of missing the garbage and picking it up again was too much to deal with).
I also half-recognized that this might a great opportunity for growth. It didn’t matter how the rat got there, it was there, and like all of my fears, it could either be addressed or ignored; either disposed of or left to rot under a bowl. I wanted to be someone who went through life choosing the former route.
I took the trash bag near the bowl, breathed a few deep breaths, averted my eyes to view as little of the rat as possible, and lifted the bowl. Before depositing it, I quickly noticed some strange details out of the corner of my eye. First, the blood hadn’t smeared on the magazine. The guts were still red, so it should have been running. Next, there seemed like a distinct lack of detail to the rats entrails; it was more of a general mess than an exposed anatomy with intestines, kidneys and other organs.
The reason for these strange details was that the rat wasn’t real. It was rubber. A houseguest, my good friend Doug Campbell, had put it there as a joke that morning. After a chuckle and a mock-angry text to Doug, I started to breathe again.
There are a few important lessons to be had from this experience.
- Often what we fear is complete fiction. I had created all this drama around something that didn’t exist. How was this situation like other fears I have? I am afraid of going broke, but have I ever been without the things I need? I am afraid of not making a significant contribution to the world, but am I sure that if I do make some major contribution, that it’ll assuage my fears? All my fears are dependent on some sort of fictional reality to persist.
- Fears persist when avoided or not viewed. If I had looked at the rat right from the get-go, there would have been no drama. Instead I avoided looking at it, and the interval between perceived threat and recognition that the threat was imaginary, was spent in terror. I won’t get that interval back. My life in those five or so minutes was completely subsumed by fear. This is analogous to all my fears: until I face and look at them, they plague me, pervading all the moments of my life.
- Fear is based on association, not fact. This is similar to point #1, but goes a step further. Whether the rat was real or not, my disturbance had nothing to do with the thing itself. The thing was just the thing. It was just being a dead rat (or its rubberized equivalent). What got me so worked up was the associations I had with rats: that they’ll bite me and I’ll get the plague and my health insurance won’t cover it and I’ll go broke and no one will love me or take care of me; that they’ll infest my apartment and I don’t want to move, etc. I didn’t fear the rat. I feared the implications of these associative interpretations—interpretations that had no basis in reality.
- So fucking what if it was a real rat? While I don’t necessarily want to invite rats into my apartment, if there was one there—dead or alive—I would probably want to respond to it by either disposing of it or laying a trap. Sometimes we do have real rats in our homes. Sometimes we do encounter threatening situations—we get really sick, we go broke, we are rejected by another. So what? Fear never serves us in responding to any situation. If anything, it delays a response and allows a situation to fester.
This morning, I put the rubber rat in the middle of my living room to remind me of the grip fear can have on my life. I want to master my fears. I don’t want to be controlled by misplaced imagination. I want to see things as they are, not as my interpretations dictate. That said, the thing still freaks me out.