If elves were real, they’d be whimpering, anxious wrecks, too wracked by fear to leave their towers or trees. For an immortal, no risk would be worth taking. A plague, a stray arrow, or an angry bandit might rob a human of fifty or eighty years. The same might rob an elf of the lifespan of the planet.
I was a nerdy, anxious kid. I’m a nerdy, anxious adult. I spend a lot of my time thinking about even my mental health in terms of Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings.
Elves, as popularly understood, can live thousands of years, watching mortals grow old and die like we might watch the leaves on trees turn color and fall. When I was younger, I idolized elves. Now? I pity them.
Avoiding danger is a self-reinforcing behavior, a behavior that elves would have centuries or millennia to perfect.
“Parent, what is death?” an elf kid might ask one night, in that gender-neutral language I figure elves probably have because that would be awesome.
“It’s the end of everything,” the parent elf would say back to their kid, tucking them into bed under a blanket of moss or unicorn wool or some bullshit like that. “But don’t worry. You’re an elf, you get to live forever. As long as you never slip up ever. Sweet dreams!”
* * *
I was a chickenshit kid.
I never liked rollercoasters. I rationalized this fear easily enough: a manufactured experience designed to mimic danger is absurd and unnecessary. Clearly, I was too smart to enjoy something like that.
I never liked scary stories, least of all when I was out camping in the woods. I never slept well, those nights, convinced as I was that some knife-wielding murderer would come for me in my sleeping bag. I didn’t understand why people insisted on telling such terrible stories.
I never liked scary movies or TV shows. I couldn’t handle The X-Files. I moved my bed away from the window because I was afraid of aliens seeing me sleeping.
* * *
My grandfather was a torpedoist in the South Pacific in WWII, fighting from inside a steel coffin leagues below the surface of the sea. Later in life, he was a naval engineer and designed ships for the Navy.
After each of his designs was built, he’d get aboard the new ship and make the captain drive into the worst storms imaginable. My grandfather stood on the deck as the waves and the wind fought against his creation, just so he could see if his ship could take it.
I’ve never quite figured out how it is that I’m descended from a man as brave as he was.
* * *
Driving my van down the highway at 70mph is an act of faith: faith that nothing will go wrong with the engine, faith that there won’t be a boulder in the middle of the road around the next bend, faith that a deer won’t decide to jump out in front of my van. Realistically, any of these things might happen at any point. But in order to drive my van, in order to live my life, I need to forget that. I need to have faith in something I know to be fallible.
Driving is a barometer of anxiety, for me. The more anxious I am in general—about being broke, about my health, about the impending death of the ecosphere, about any number of things—the harder it is for me to drive. When it’s hard to drive, I grip the steering wheel with white knuckles. Every gust of wind spikes my adrenaline. I get hot flashes.
But I’ve found a cognitive trick to help me: when a car almost merges into me or I hit a pothole at full speed or the wind blows me to or past the edge of my lane, every time it feels like I’m about to die on the road, I shout “woo!”
Just that. I shout “woo!” I’m not actually happy, I’m not actually excited. I’m goddammed terrified. But I shout with feigned joy nonetheless.
After six months, this cognitive training bore fruit. I was driving up the Georgia coast in a pissing rainstorm. Downed trees blocked both lanes of the freeway, leaving me to swerve around them on the far shoulder. I was smiling. It was fun. I’d successfully retrained my limbic system.
Enjoying danger is the best anti-anxiety I’ve ever found.
It’s not like I’m going to live forever anyway.
It would be fucking awful to be an elf.
* * *
Danger, not coincidentally, accompanies the worst harm I’ve experienced. My attempts in my late teens and early twenties to “see what I was made of” have had long-lasting, detrimental effects on my limbic system. But death is the barrier at the edge of life’s canvas. It provides shape and structure to our lives, allowing us to imbue our lives with meaning.
I want to live to be old for the same reason I want to take risks: I want to experience as wide of a swath of human existence as I can—including that of being old itself.
I used to think people who rode motorcycles were kind of stupid (sorry, Dad). Now I only think the ones who ride without helmets are. Whenever possible, we should mitigate danger. I wear a seat belt; I drive at reasonable speeds. But I won’t get anywhere if I don’t get on the road.
* * *
Security is an ephemeral thing, when it isn’t simply illusory. We all know that. But illusions have their purpose.
I fell into self-coddling in my late twenties, clinging desperately to security wherever I might find it. I was hurt, I was tired, I was traumatized and drained. Scrambling for safety was scarcely better, and the anxiety returned.
Avoidance of stressors is as unhealthy for me as stubbornly embracing stressful situations.
Balancing my mental health requires walking a narrow tightrope over a pit of anxiety. My balancing pole says “danger” on one end and “security” on the other. If I don’t keep that pole balanced, down I go. It’s easy, far too easy, to overcorrect an excess of danger with an excess of security and vice versa.
* * *
The elf child will grow up, after a hundred years of helicopter parenting, and they will build their own tree house and they’ll stubbornly defend their borders from all strangers. They’ll cling to safety, desperate to eke out as many dull, stressful millennia as they can before a sword lays them low.
Elves hold themselves above and outside of the world. But they don’t do this because they are better than humanity, they do it because they are worse than us. For all their haughty pretensions, they are miserable creatures, too frightened of change to accept the beauty and chaos of the world.
I pity them.