Eating Our Terror







There is a peculiar phrase in Arabic, psychologist Hala Alyan notes in her beautiful essay on fear. Its literal translation is “You’ve eaten some terror.”

The notion stops me.

I am used to thinking of emotions eating us. Devouring us, consuming us, swallowing us up. But to eat terror—or rage, say, or jealousy—is to deliberately partake of it. Eve sinks her teeth into the apple and winks.

Maybe she does not wink. Maybe she has a sinking feeling, an instant regret. Or a delayed reaction, realizing only later, with a queasy lurch, the damage she had done to herself. Remember the clammy moment when you know for certain that you have food poisoning—and there is no turning back. You have ingested something toxic, rotten, vile, and your system now must purge it.

At least there is a process. It is not pretty, but it is effective and, unless you chomped arsenic, fail-proof. What you ate will move through you, and just when you are convinced you are dying, the misery will lift and the toxin will be gone and you will bounce out of bed ravenous, clearheaded, and wiser at least for a time.

Rewind a few hours, though. Even in the throes of salmonella, you probably felt less helpless than you would if you were being eaten alive, swallowed whole like Jonah, gobbled up like Little Red Riding Hood.

“What’s eating you?” a friend asks, and even the prospect is intolerable: I slam back with a sharp upper-cut: “Nothing.” Who would admit to being eaten?

The Arabic phrase makes me wonder. What if, the next time I feel consumed, swallowed up, I reframe what is happening? What if I make myself the subject instead of the object and thereby own the verb? I have eaten something bad for me—or maybe even good for me, like medicine, but bitter. Now the solution is obvious: Quick, swallow something delicious to take away that nasty taste. Then a spoonful of something soothing and pink to quiet the gurgles. Wait, with patience, for the misery to pass.

When we think a monster is eating us, we are not patient. Our panic fulfills the prophecy, feeding the monster just as we feared. And so, the monster grows bigger and more menacing and may decide to stick around for good. We have offered it such sustenance. Dwell on an old grievance and watch it swell, gaining fresh strength. In English, we say we are eaten up by jealousy, consumed by worry.

Ah, but if we are the ones eating? We contain the nastiness and let it pass through us. No resistance. We want it gone. If we were being eaten we would want the monster gone, too, but we have less control when fangs are sinking into our soft flesh. We go limp, dangle from the bloody mouth, hope to be tossed aside.

“Stress is eating him up inside,” we say, shaking our heads. Compare that to “The guy eats stress for breakfast,” said with a grin and a shrug. Because he is the one eating, he is powerful and the stress is harmless, even desirable. We tell babies, “You are so sweet I could just eat you up,” and we snuffle and nibble that velvety skin. In slang, “you’re ate up” means you are a mess, not organized or prepared. But to eat something up is to thoroughly enjoy it.

If the choice is to eat or be eaten, I would rather eat.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.