~ Reflection on Fear ~
As much as we try to avoid it, fear is one of the most common emotions around - especially today. Whether it’s fear of getting COVID, fear about losing one’s job or home, fear about the political climate, or fear about something else, there’s no doubt that there is a lot of it about these days.
Looking back, I can see how much fear has dominated my life. Growing up in the 1960s, I remember being terrified about nuclear war. I believed that everyone and everything I loved would be destroyed in an instant, including me. Then as a teenager in the 1970s, I read Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring and became frightened about the dangers of toxic chemicals. Then in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I became deeply alarmed about climate disruption and its consequences. Today, all of these fears still live in me, as well as others.
But not all fear is bad. It can be a motivating force and rouse us out of complacency. It’s only when it drags us down and we can’t see a way forward that it becomes unhealthy and debilitating. When fear becomes an overwhelming and paralyzing state of dread, it controls our thoughts and emotions and prevents us from taking action.
Fear is often about what we think will happen in the future. Even though we can never know for sure what will happen, human beings have a tendency to project bad things because from an evolutionary point of view our brains are wired to anticipate danger. It’s an inbuilt survival mechanism inherited from our prehistoric ancestors. But these days, we don’t generally need to worry about being ripped to pieces by a sabre toothed tiger or trampled to death by a woolly mammoth. These days some of our fears may be irrational or overblown, so it’s a good idea to question them by asking something like “Is this true?” and “How do I know this is really true?” Questions such as these can help to disarm fear and return us to a calmer, more equanimous state of mind.
A second strategy for working with fear is to express it by writing it down or talking about it. Naming our fears gives us a little space between us and the fear. This is helpful because we can be afraid of expressing them. I may be scared that if I really acknowledge my fear - even to myself - it will engulf me. That I will lose control and get stuck in it. Or perhaps I am afraid of inflicting my fear on others because I don’t want them to be upset. Or maybe I am afraid that if I express my fear, others will think I am being neurotic.
Fear of expressing fear is fed by cultural values that regard fear as a sign of weakness. As children, we are taught to be optimistic, cheerful and upbeat. To disclose we are afraid is frowned on. Fear is an extremely uncomfortable topic of conversation that is usually avoided at all costs. Like sex, money and religion, people don’t talk about their fears in polite society. And when we stay silent about them, they don’t go away – quite the opposite they persist and sometimes get stronger, like the smell of leftovers that have gone bad in the refrigerator.
Although not expressing our fears does not serve us, it does serve people in positions of political and economic power - the power-holders - because it enables them to control us more easily. The power-holders know that fearful, silent people are easy to manipulate and control. Furthermore, when we express our fears to others and they express theirs to us, we realize that we are not alone, and that we can support each other.
A third strategy for working with fear is to surround it with love and compassion. When you feel afraid, it can help to visualize the fear as a frightened young child – perhaps a younger version of yourself – and then offer them all the love and compassion your adult self can muster. Hold the fear in your arms, inquire it into it gently, and allow it to be without trying to get rid of it
To end, I find these words from Thich Nhat Hanh helpful:
“Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay.”