I have made the maybe-not-so-remarkable observation that most of us are very, very afraid. We wake up with dread of an undefined disaster and sleep from the exhaustion of the anticipation of this disaster. Our fear of fear has become so pervasive that sites like Facebook have been inundated with constant streams of ‘conquer fear’ quotes. Believe me, I have done my fair share of reposting such status updates. People are more wary than ever of establishing relationships out of fear of being hurt, parents are clinging on to their children more tightly out of fear that danger lurks in every corner, citizens fear their governments and governments fear their citizens…… The list goes on and on. Today more than ever, the culture of fear is alive and thriving.
I have my own fears and sometimes they can be paralysing. Most psychologists recommend that whatever it is that is paralysing you, sit down with it like a little child, look at it in the eye and try to understand it. And reason with it. So, I sat my little (umm, big) monster of fear down and started the conversation:
According to Dictionary.com, fear is the “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined“. Keywords? ‘Real or imagined’. The ‘real’ part is perfectly logical because fear has it’s merits in evolutionary biology. We developed certain fear-based mechanisms in order to ensure our survival. Our run-in with that wild animal that almost killed us made us develop more cautionary day-to-day survival instincts. The ‘imagined’ part of fear is the wildly exaggerated and irrational construct of our imagination, the Chicken Little in us constantly screaming out, “‘the sky is falling on our heads!”
While fear has always been present in our lives, 911 raised this emotion to new heights. What might have been a perfectly reasonable and polite thing to say before 911 is now only said after a long and thoughtful pause (or not said at all). We imagine that ‘they’ will hunt us down, whoever ‘they’ is. We’ve given each other labels to help us supposedly identify the ‘threats’ from the ‘non-threats’, governments are spending billions in defense programs, millions of innocent lives lost domestically and internationally because someone thought that someone else was going to harm them first. We threaten one another in order to induce fear and make others succumb to our selfish desires. Fear may rule relationships on micro and macro levels, but it has also turned our societies into chaotic and dysfunctional ones. Sadly, both the fear-monger and the fear-recipient hurt in the end. I’m sure if there were aliens looking at us from outer space, they’d think earth was some big freak show.
In a fascinating video lecture, Scilla Ellsworthy describes an incident where Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s longtime pro-democracy figure, was leading a group of students on a protest. The protesters came upon a row of soldiers pointing machine guns at them. With their fingers shaking in the triggers, Aung San Suu Kyi quickly realized that the soldiers were in fact, more scared than the protestors were. She walked calmly towards a soldier, put her hand gently on his gun and gently lowered it and no one got killed. In my own personal life, I have come to the realization that people who threaten me are most likely also really afraid of me. They are afraid of what they perceive I represent and I am afraid of that they represent. In the end we are like dogs chasing our own tails, all afraid of each other.
We are also afraid of ourselves, thinking that our decisions will ultimately lead to our very destruction. What if I say or do (insert perfectly reasonable word/action here) will make me (insert perfectly disastrous outcome here)? The need to control outcomes, be they in form of decisions or relationships, is ultimately what feeds the Fear Monster.
Psychologists advocate the practice of surrender as the antidote to fear. In order to fear less, we need to let go of the notion that we are in complete control of our lives. In one of her always inspiring articles, Martha Beck offers practical insights on how to surrender:
“…find a place in your life where you’re practicing experiential avoidance, an absence where you wish there were something wonderful. Then commit to the process of getting it, including any inherent anxiety or sadness. Get on an airplane not because you’re convinced it won’t crash, but because meeting your baby niece is worth a few hours of terror. Sit on the beach with your mocha latte, humming the song you shared with your ex, and let grief wash through you until your memories are more sweet than bitter. Pursue your dreams not because you’re immune to heartbreak but because your real life, your whole life, is worth getting your heart broken a few thousand times.”
Or in other words,
“Take into account that great love and great achievements involve great risk” (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama).
When fear makes your choices for you, you become a prisoner of own self. But if you choose to embrace fear, rather than run away from it, you will ultimately experience peace. And it may just be that perhaps this inner peace will eventually translate to a greater sense of world peace. Replace fear with a healthy dose of curiosity. If someone makes you nervous, attempt to know him/her better. You might just find out that you share more similarities than differences. If you are scared of being authentic because you fear that some people won’t like you anymore, remember that being you is the surest way of weeding out the unnecessary weight in your social circle. Pursue your true path with the assurance that actions born out of the purest intentions are like pathways in the constellation of the night sky-they will always lead you to where you need to go. Let go of the false sense of control and accept that that life (or God, if you believe in a higher power) may not always lead you to where you want to go, but it will lead you to where you need to go. Surrender, surrender, surrender. Surrendering is probably one of the hardest things you’ll do, but it just might be the very thing that shrinks the Fear Monster.