Familiarity and Fear

Familiarity and Fear

Two years ago, we adopted a new pet into our family—he is an albino corn snake named Sunny, and he lives in the bedroom of the younger child, who is his primary caregiver. She feeds him, freshens his water, keeps his terrarium clean, and is responsible for understanding his needs. I know when to purchase more food, wet moss, or aspen bedding only when she tells me it’s needed.

I did not—and, frankly, still do not—want to have a snake as a pet. I had a trusted healer advise against welcoming a snake under our roof because of the energy it would bring. I worried that the appeal of caregiving would quickly fade, leaving the care—or, worse, the culpability for its death—to me. And I have always feared snakes (perhaps because, as far as I knew, it’s the only thing that truly frightened my father).

But the eager child was persistent for more than a year, and finally we parents said we would adopt a snake if she read a book about snake care and was able to convince us that she would bear the responsibility for this living creature’s well-being. And she did.

So, we did our research and ordered a baby corn snake from a reputable source, and on a day in February 2020, a box was delivered to our home, tiny living serpent inside.

I still remember the visceral fear that gripped me when I saw that box on the doorstep, knowing what we’d find when it was opened. I felt an increased heart rate, discomfort in my gut, an irrational need to step away from the box. Of course, I know there’s good evolutionary reason to be afraid of snakes—it’s quite rational to pay attention to an inherent fear of something potentially deadly—but I also knew with full confidence that the snake inside that box would not harm me.

I kept my distance for a long while. I was curious, but still afraid—I would watch as Sunny was fed, feeling at once fascinated and horrified. I would ask to touch him while someone else was holding him, but couldn’t bring myself to hold him. And I would startle whenever I walked past the bedroom and caught a glimpse of him behind the glass.

And now, two years later? I still don’t open his terrarium myself. I’m not eager to cuddle him, but I can hold him more comfortably now—and I want to, sometimes. And I see how beautiful he is. I marvel at how much he has grown. I’m disappointed when he’s hiding and not visible. I talk to him like a beloved member of the family. I tell him goodbye when I’m leaving, just like I do the dog!

This week I was visiting with a new colleague, and we were talking about kids and pets and things, and I heard myself say, “I used to have a really strong fear of snakes, but now that Sunny is in our home and I’ve gotten to know him better, I am far less afraid.”

We looked at each other and shared a moment of knowing laughter.

“That’s a metaphor for a lot of things, isn’t it?”

I hope I will continue to remember that fear alone doesn’t always indicate real danger. That sometimes there is value in exploring the thing—with care and caution—to determine if it really is a threat. And that with growing familiarity and understanding, even if the fear persists, perhaps relationship is still possible.



  1. Kathy Parker

    Thank you for the lesson in this story of your transition. It’s an important lesson to keep in mind for all our encounters with fear.

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