Sometimes we learn lessons the hard way.
It was 7 a.m., and I was on the island of Bali, doing my best to stay on top of work while I traveled. It was Tuesday, and I planned to send the first draft of a long, reported article to VICE News, then finish some transcribing for a radio piece I was working on.
I picked up my computer: a sleek MacBook Air that was, in a very real way, the lifeline connecting me to the rest of the world. In the months since I’d split up with my longtime partner and become an apartment-less nomad, I’d started joking to friends, “Home is where the laptop is.”
I took a sip of jasmine tea, crossed my legs beneath me on the pillow-covered wooden couch and opened the computer to begin my day. The rushing of the river and occasional whine of a mosquito were the only sounds of early morning – which wasn’t good. The laptop was silent.
I click the trackpad, nothing again. But that wasn’t so unusual. Maybe it had run out of battery in the night. I plugged the charger cord in, the wall outlet sparking as usual, and pressed the power button.
Nothing. I tried again, held down the power key for longer, my pulse quickening, my breath coming short and fast. “No, no, no, no,” I whispered. “Not today. This can not be happening.”
I felt my face heating up, hands beginning to shake. I was thousands of miles away from the nearest Apple store, and a 24-hour plane ride away from the storage box where my backup hard drive was. At least two editors were expecting work from me later that day.
“This can’t be happening,” I repeated. But I knew it was, and more importantly, I knew that I had ignored the intuitive messages that warned me weeks in advance.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been delving deeper into my own intuition. As I’ve done so, one question has dogged me: What’s the difference between a feeling or voice that comes from intuition and one that comes from fear?
I’ve gotten better at recognizing the voice of fear. For instance, I feel certain that I’ve left the stove on at least 15% of the times I walk out of the house. A voice in my head says, “You better go back in there and make sure it’s off! If you don’t, bad things are going to happen. You’ll come back to a smoking pile of rubble!” It goes on like that.
I credit my mother (sorry, mom), who would always tell me to make sure I checked the stove on our way to church on Sunday, because, “If the house burns down we’ll all be homeless!”
I’ve only left the stove on a couple of times in my life, so I know intellectually that this voice in my head is probably the voice of fear. But it isn’t always so obvious and repetitive.
As I crouched in the fetal position next to my dead computer, blindsided, I realized that I had been ignoring another, quieter voice, one I would come to recognize as intuition. And one that, if I had heeded it, could have saved me hours of nail-biting stress.
In the weeks leading up to that morning, I had found myself having thoughts about backing up my computer on several occasions, despite the fact that my computer wasn’t old and nothing was visibly wrong with it.
“I really rely on this thing, I should probably have a back-up,” I thought while I was working on my computer one hot summer day. A few days later, I marveled that all of my wedding photos were stored on the laptop and figured I should back them up. These pings came again and again.
Then, a few days before the computer crash, I did a tarot reading and pulled two foreboding cards: World and the Death card were right next to each other in the spread. My world is going to die, I thought. I wonder what that means. I couldn’t figure it out.
To all of the thoughts about my computer I said and did the following: That’s true, I’ll take care of it later. In other words, I was lazy about it. The voice telling me to plan ahead was one whose requests I could turn down, a voice that had an opinion, but also left room for me to ignore it.
And as I sat there that morning, I admitted that I had been given several chances to make things easier on myself, and had taken none of them.
When I searched the web for research on intuition, I found little that satisfied me in terms of research. The book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by the prolific author Malcolm Gladwell, touches on this subject a little, but the kind of intuition he describes is an unconsciously learned one. And there are times where I get an intuitive message that feels gifted, not learned.
But I did like what I found in an article by Rosalie Puiman, a leadership coach who characterizes the difference this way.
Fear is often anxious, dark or heavy. It has cruel, demeaning or delusional content and it reflects unhealed psychological wounds… Intuition [is] only about the present. There’s no worrying about past or future involved… [It’s] neutral, unemotional… confirms you’re on target…[and] has a compassionate, affirming tone to it… whereas fear is highly emotionally charged.
What I learned from my computer breakdown was this: The voice of intuition is sweet, like a kind stranger who taps you on the shoulder and whispers “Hey, dear, have you considered this?”
The voice of intuition is easy to put off. She’ll never say, “I told you so” and because of that, she’s easier to deprioritize amidst the noise and obligations of modern life. The voice of fear, by contrast is bullish, loud, persistent and often ill-informed, or at least using outdated information.
But that’s exactly why I need to make time for those quiet moments. Because the voice of intuition may be subtle, but she’s telling the truth.
Breena Kerr is a journalist and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, Vice and others. Always fascinated by mysticism and spirituality, her global wanderings have exposed her to philosophies and traditions from many corners of the earth. In her spare time, she plans her next trip, practices yoga and studies her tarot deck.