In an interview by Krista Tippet (on my go-to podcast On Being), the late Irish poet John O'Donohue recounts growing up in the midst of the wild and harshly beautiful landscape of Ireland. He would often return home from the fields after dark, his path taking him through a deserted village that he was sure was filled with the ghosts of those who had lived there in years gone-by. A young child in a dark and deserted village filled with ghosts? I envision the young poet covering his ears and running through the dark and scary village as fast as his little legs could carry him.
Our own inner landscapes have dark and deserted villages, inhabited by our own ghost stories. Like monsters that lurk under beds, creatures that crouch in dark forests, and skeletons that rattle in closets, when kept in the dark our imaginations run wild. We visualize ourselves surrounded by unseen dangers at every turn. It's too scary to stop, so better to cover our ears and run away as fast as our little legs can carry us. But you know what they say... You can run but you can't hide. Our inner fears come with us wherever we go. They surface in the form of our stories, the ones we have told ourselves over and over: I'll never be enough. I don't measure up. I might not succeed. It's too risky to put myself out there. I'm not worthy of love. What if this is as good as it gets? I never get a break. Why does this always happen to me? Fill-in-your-own-blank.
No matter how fast we run, our fears keep up with us.
As it turns out, young O'Donohue was taught that if he ever encountered one of those spirits, he should turn to it and ask, "What do you want?" In the folk culture of his youth it was believed that ghosts were the spirits of those who had left this world with something still unfinished. By asking the ghost what it wanted rather than running away, it was believed that we could help that spirit complete that which was unfinished so that it could move on in peace. Isn'' that what we all want? To move on in peace, unencumbered by our old fearful stories?
The next time I'm tempted to cover my ears and run from one of my scary inner ghosts, I'm going to take a deep breath, stop and look directly into its eyes and ask "What do you want?" Like the spirits of John O'Donohue's deserted village, my ghosts have unfinished business., and all they want is for me to move on in peace. That seems worth the risk to me. I hope it does to you too.