Yesterday I went hiking through the Blue Mountain Reservation near Peekskill, New York. It’s a fairly standard-issue mid-Atlantic patch of woods, with rocky dirt paths, streams crossed by a plain wooden footbridge, and the occasional bird call from high up in brown trees with leaves just starting to turn. It feels small, so while the crisscrossing trails can sometimes be hard to follow, there’s no real danger of getting lost: just choose a direction and walk, and you’ll hit a road in a mile or two.
The only place the trail dead-ends is a small turn-off that’s a steep but short climb to an overlook, where you can sit on lichen-covered rocks and gaze out across the Hudson to Bear Mountain beyond. Though the trees block a fair amount of the view, it’s a good spot to have lunch, and we sat down and unpacked crackers, hummus, cheese, baby carrots, and blueberries and started to munch away.
I had, embarrassed, admitted the day prior that I don’t really like blueberries, feeling ashamed about my pickiness and ungrateful for the food before me. I hate being a picky eater; I feel pretentious and obnoxious, like I expect the world to cater to my particular wants. But it is, I’ve learned, just another kind of anxiety. The picky eater is worried that she will experience something unpleasant, that she might put something in her mouth that tastes bad, feels weird, or otherwise causes what could generously be called distress. At my most anxious, I turned on food entirely. I feared deadly allergies in foods I’d eaten all my life, and imagined fatal pathogens lurking in food prepared by an uncaring employee. I saw food only as a necessarily evil, at the same time missing desperately the times I’d so enjoyed it. I resented that I needed to eat to stay alive.
Fortunately my taste for gustatory pleasures has returned, along with a renewed desire to eat foods that are varied, good, and whole, though I am not above slice pizza, macaroni and cheese, and whatever beer might be available. Food tastes especially good when it is well-deserved. I have fond memories of some cherry tomatoes eaten at the edge of a lake in Glacier National Park, their bright sweetness like gold in my mouth after a 6-mile uphill trek replete with mud, snow, and a thankfully distant momma grizzly with her two cubs. I’ve never enjoyed peanut butter more than when it was smeared on a flour tortilla with Nutella and shoved into a ravenous gullet after climbing four or five miles into the Appalachian Mountains with a 20-pound pack on my back. So I looked forward to this meal in Blue Mountain, though not without some trepidation, because I had promised to at least try the blueberries, even though they were something I was sure I did not like.
I tried not to give it too much buildup, not to indulge the anxiety. Just short-circuit that particular neural pathway and act as though it doesn’t exist. After an assurance that they did not have pits or seeds and could be eaten whole, I chose what appeared to be the smallest one and popped it in my mouth. It was exceedingly boring. It tasted like a grape, maybe a little on the tart side. My mind waited for the discomfort I had been sure was coming, and when it didn’t, I laughed out loud at the absurdity. “What did I think was wrong with blueberries?” I said, mostly to myself, marveling that for my entire life I had decided I didn’t like something, for apparently no reason at all.
There is a moment of opportunity when a feared outcome fails to materialize, a short opening in time after an external reality clashes with the internal one. The mind must resolve this dissonance in order to move forward, and there are two ways in which to do this.
You can decide to hang on to the fear, which will require conjuring up some suffering that proves the fear warranted. You must convince yourself something bad has happened, even if it has not. The opportunity, here, is missed.
Or, you can accept what really happened, that you were wrong and everything was fine. You can admit that the fear was unnecessary, protected you from nothing, and can be let go. This is obviously the better choice, but it is, for some reason, the more difficult one to make. It is easier to alter your perception of reality to fit what you believed to be true than it is to accept reality and alter your thinking. It takes effort, and I often fail. Sometimes I convince myself that a fear is worth hanging on to even after experience proves otherwise–sometimes over and over again. I still avoid a particular set of elevators despite many opportunities to confront them, because I dislike them too much and I don’t have the energy to deal with it.
But the blueberries were simple. I will eat them again. Perhaps I will even choose them for myself. My culinary vista has been widened ever so slightly and I can waste a tiny bit less mental energy because I have one less thing to fear in this world. That outcome is almost always worth the risk.