Overcoming a fear of the dark

Darkness does not intimidate me. I have never been really scared of darkness, thanks to my very early exposure to life at the edge of the jungle.

Nyctophobia, or debilitating fear of the dark, is one of the most common specific phobias in children aged between six and 12, even among adults that I was and am an exception.

It is very common for children and adults both in the rural and urban areas to suffer from this phobia. I consider myself lucky not to fear darkness per se though driving through a dark road makes me nervous, especially when my poor car light and eyesight are not of much help.

Nevertheless the dark stretches along roads between the Museum Ground and the overhead bridge at Wisma Saberkas – plus “the big family” buried therein, especially the lot across Sarawak General Hospital – failed to scare me, thanks to my years of tapping rubber during the dark hours across Melupa River opposite the old Iban traditional burial ground at Burui just above my Saratok longhouse.

These burial places do not perturb me at all, after all why should we fear those who have died. Or do we fear their ghosts, if they really exist?

If I were to meet any, I might just hug it and probably might be lucky if the so-called ghost turns into a piece of gold.

I do have some uneasy moments driving along some dark stretches of the Kuching-Samarahan road as well as along Stakan road from Mile 7, which I regularly use at night despite its poor lighting all the way.

It is more of the concern for other road users failing to see me due to my dim car light.

Come to think of it, many people fear darkness could be due to pre-conceived belief that there are ghosts lurking in the darkness.

My initial fear of darkness during my very young days was of wild animals and snakes. But after many nocturnal trips – both hunting (with gun) and fishing – I managed to overcome this fear in my teenage years.

I believe that this nyctophobia could be due to human fear of death, thinking that darkness houses many possible causes of death.

But there is no need to be scared of death and therefore we should not be scared of darkness.

However, we cannot blame those who fear darkness and death. Probably most people fear death and darkness too, and there is no reason for us to blame them; in fact, I pray for their wellbeing.

Pertaining to this I would like to refer to what Julius Caesar said circa 44 BC: “Cowards die many times before their deaths. The valiant never tastes of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”

For me, it all started with an episode that happened circa 1963 when I was barely nine years old and when I knew nothing about Julius Caesar – it was about six years later that I read simplified versions of most of Shakespeare’s works, including Julius Caesar and only did the full play in 1971 for our Form Four Literature textbook.

I excelled in the subject and a lot of quotes therein became my inspirations, including the aforesaid “fear of death” quote.

During the 1963 episode, my dad (Apai) and I went to his original longhouse Munggu Embawang one afternoon but did not stay overnight.

We left the longhouse in the afternoon with grandpa Jembu joining us back to our farmhouse in Bukit Tinggi about 40 minutes’ journey on foot from Munggu Embawang.

My mom and elder brother Jon were in our longhouse Kedap about an hour’s journey on foot from Bukit Tinggi.

That evening after dinner, dad complained of stomachache, which worsened by the minute, so much so that he almost yelled in pain.

He asked me to inform his paternal first cousin Dundang Enchana, fondly known as Apai Aling, whose farmhouse was about 15 minutes’ away on foot through jungle path.

This was a historic point for me as it was my first time venturing into darkness alone. The only plus point was my familiarity with the daily trodden jungle path in between our residence and another rubber garden upriver.

Armed with a knife of medium length with its sheath tied to my waist, I carried a torchlight to add further convenience provided by the moonlit night.

Luckily, I did not have to wake up Apai Aling as he was still busy manning his tuckshop, since it was just 9pm.

“Apai has a very bad stomachache and asked your help to get Aunty Rendong (who lived about 30 minutes away on foot) to help massage him. Get Uncle Nuga (Rendong’s husband) to go to Kedap and tell mom and longhouse folk there about his sickness,” I said to Apai Aling, who obliged as requested.

For the record, Rendong was dad’s maternal first cousin whereas Nuga was mom’s maternal second cousin.

I came back immediately after getting the message across to Uncle Dundang.

It could be probably my concern for dad that I feared nothing, including darkness whereas “antu” or ghosts lurking in the dark never crossed my mind.

Maybe the adrenaline in my system overcame all other negative feelings, including fear.

By midnight, a lot of people gathered in our humble residence. Apai was attended to by Aunty Rendong and had improved a lot.

He was brought to our longhouse en route to Saratok Clinic by longboat the next day – a five-hour journey.

His cousin, six-foot tall Mathew Banyin, carried him on his back all the way from Bukit Tinggi to Kedap.

I did not join the Saratok trip as it was a school day whereby half of the day was spent in telling with pride my story of conquering darkness the night before.

It was repeated over the next few days to new and willing listeners when I held court during lunch break.

Many fishing trips alone to rivers and streams were to follow over the years, including a few where I had to go back during the early evening and found the torchlight that I always carried very handy.

The dozens of nocturnal sounds never intimidated me, especially during overnight stay at durian valleys.

Since our young days, we had been advised by our elders to burn firewood or log near to our jungle shelter as fire could help to scare away wild animals, including snakes.

All these encounters with darkness further reinforced my ease with it.

I pray for the souls of all those involved on the day I managed to brave darkness.

All those stated in the episode, with the exception of my brother Jon, have gone home to be with the Lord. May their souls be blessed!