Our fears often come from classical conditioning. Something terrible happens with a thing and we associate terror with that thing. In other words, a fat dead mouse pops up in your oven and you develop a fear of rodents (and ovens).
A boy’s formative years are supposed to be spent helping old ladies across the road and kissing girls (which is ironic, really, because the first girl I ever kissed looked like the old lady across the road). We shouldn’t be finding bloated, decomposing mice in the cooking oil.
I blame my mother. First, she had a terrifying fear of rodents (known as suriphobia or musophobia) and children often inherit their parents’ fears. (It’s known as observational learning. We see. We copy. It’s why my five-year-old sister got drunk on Christmas Day.) And second, my mother always left cooking oil in the baking tray to reuse the following day.
In the meantime, the world’s most corpulent mouse somehow broke into the back of our oven as if auditioning for a part in Ocean’s Eleven and attempted to drink a lake of cooking oil.
But the oil hardened as it cooled. The mouse got trapped and suffocated in the solid, white fat. The following evening, my mother pulled out the baking tray, threw it in the air and screamed something about grilling a mouse.
I will never forget the contents of that baking tray. Think of a fat Ewok lying on his back in the missionary position, having just gorged himself to death.
Almost 40 years later, I still peer through the glass window of any oven before opening the door, half-expecting to find a chorus line of high-kicking rodents singing ‘Mickey Mouse March’.
When I encountered my first Singaporean rat on a Toa Payoh void-deck, I contemplated leaving the country (true story). When I witnessed a rat run across the plates at a Zion Road hawker centre, I never returned (true story and it’s been 20 years). And when I bought my first Singaporean home, I checked with pest control if rats were likely to reach me on the sixth floor. (They haven’t yet, but I still tape up the oven when I go on vacation.)
Snakes and spiders are of no concern. But a tiny, furry creature scurrying across a park connector remains the fastest laxative I know. Fears are both rational and irrational. Hoping to avoid a love bite from an equatorial spitting cobra is rational. An irrational fear is fleeing an exasperated wife whilst shouting, “I might be almost two metres tall and it’s just a baby, but you never saw the dead rat in the fat!”
Genetics, environment and negative experiences shape our fears, both silly and serious. An elderly Jewish friend in Australia spent tens of thousands of dollars on surveillance cameras and regular utility checks in her suburban home. She was obsessed with gas leaks. Some of her family had died in the Holocaust.
She was also convinced that the next-door neighbour was killing her chickens. No one had a clue where that fear came from. But it has a name. Alektorophobia. Well, that’s the name for an intense fear of chickens, anyway, which I do not suffer from—only it’s comical offshoot. I have traces of anatidaephobia—the fear of being watched by a duck. More specifically, it’s geese. Geese give me the sh*ts.
Growing up, my neighbour appeared to be starring in a kampong-like sitcom, gathering as many farmyard pets in a London council house as possible, hoping the council wouldn’t notice that he had more animals than Old MacDonald.
I noticed. When a goose flapped into the kitchen and bit me on the bum, I definitely noticed. Most normal people do not fear geese because most normal people haven’t had a goose’s beak stabbing theirs in a neighbour’s kitchen.
Some nights, I still hear the quacking.
But here’s the not-so-funny thing. Daft, irrational fears are often tolerated and discussed at dinner parties more often than very real and rational fears.
Our indifference towards migrant workers still being caged inside their dormitories, domestic helper abuse, climate change and unsustainable eating and living practices worry me so much more than a mad goose. These fears are palpable and alarming. Rats and geese can mostly be avoided, but how does one stay away from all of the above? And should we even try? This stuff really scares me.
So, I focus on what I love. Hope. I bloody love hope. For every abhorrent human rights story, there’s another on a voluntary organisation or an initiative trying to fix the broken. For every self-centred, fossil fuel guzzling, wealth-obsessed individual, they’ll be a group of environmentalists cleaning up a beach or park near you this weekend.
I love anyone and anything that brings a smidgeon of hope. Does it really need to be any more complicated than that?
Naturally, I once assumed that I loved the big stuff: apartments, cars, careers, bank accounts and branded goods of all shapes and sizes, the bigger the better.
But I’m actually fearful of guys that still covet all this stuff now, knowing what we do about the impractical unsustainability of such hollow pursuits.
Loving the small stuff, the selfless acts of kindness, the little gestures for others and life’s simple pleasures seem more fulfilling in an uncertain world.
Last night, I played card games with my wife and daughter on our balcony. Simple pleasures. There’s nothing else I love more. So I sat back, looked up at the solitary star in the night sky and thought, No rat is reaching me on the sixth floor.