This is Max. For nearly 19 years he was part of our family. He lived in a protective environment. He was an indoor kitty. Rarely did he venture outside, so foxes, coyotes and hawks were not a threat. Yet he lived in fear. Not every moment, of course. But it didn’t take much. An unusual noise. The sight of a dog outside. A visitor. It took very little to drive Max under a bed. He was the quintessential scaredy-cat.
It’s true that few if any people are scaredy-cats to the degree that Max was. Most people don’t find solace in boxes or hide under beds. Or do we? Perhaps it’s just that our boxes are different from Max’s.
Indeed, it could be that fear plays a much greater role in our lives than we care to admit. It could be that living a courageous life is the only way to live one’s life fully, in all its potential and magnificence. These are hypotheses I believe to be true, Vera. If I am right, your relationship with fear will have a major impact on the way you live and experience you life.
Of course, there are some good reasons for our fear. If huge meat-eating dinosaurs were bearing down on us, fear would be an appropriate response. Indeed, homo sapiens walk the earth today, in part, due to the fear that helped ensure our survival. I suspect our ancestors who lacked fear were eliminated from the gene pool at an early stage. Hence, fear probably is baked into our DNA.
I suppose the amount of fear that exists in the world was revealed to me after 9/11. It then became quite obvious that many Americans were afraid. I have to confess experiencing some cognitive dissonance at the time. How could a nation that professes to be Christian quiver so, I wondered?
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was — at least by the amount of fear that took root. And I was further surprised to see how fear brought out the worst in us. Fear inevitably leads to anger and hatred. And bad decisions.
I see it today as well. Fear and anger are propelling political careers that in earlier times would have been unimaginable. And I hear it in people’s vitriolic rantings about the dangers of this and that. Fear is unbecoming in so many ways. Yet it’s often willingly embraced.
But this is fear on a grander scheme. What I prefer to caution you about is the fear that is more likely to impact you personally. I’ve come to think it’s a crucial subject because with age has come an enhanced ability to see its pernicious ways and effects, things that were harder to see at a younger age. I also think it’s easier for me to see it today because I have overcome (not entirely, but to a large extent) what is perhaps the greatest fear of all: the fear of death. I sense the liberation that comes with keeping fear at bay.
We don’t talk much about fear in society. I suppose it’s because we don’t like to think about ourselves as being less than courageous. We don’t like to consider the implications of the fearful life. Yet it’s real. It doesn’t evaporate through neglect; to the contrary, it thrives.
I was thinking about the myriad of ways fears dictate or influence our decisions and the way we live our lives. Here are but a few of the more prominent fears I’ve experienced or observed in others over the years:
- Fear of being different (what others might think)
- Fear of being ostracized
- Fear of not looking good enough
- Fear of public speaking
- Fear of not finding the right match (partner)
- Fear of being unloved
- Fear of losing a loved one (particularly, a spouse or child)
- Fear of an abusive partner, boss or bully
- Fear of being wrong (of making a mistake)
- Fear of heights or high ledges (the latter being a favorite of mine)
- Fear of water (drowning, to be precise)
- Fear of losing one’s job
- Fear of being passed over for a promotion
- Fear of not having enough money (financial insecurity)
- Fear of losing one’s wealth
- Fear of not looking successful to others (i.e., fear of being perceived as a loser)
- Fear of strangers
- Fear of people with dark skin or who otherwise look different or have different ethnicity or cultural practices (at its extreme, racism)
- Fear of socialism, communism, Islam or other ideologies
- Fear of Alzheimer’s or some other hideous disease
- Fear of not being good enough (perhaps even as extreme as fear of eternal damnation)
- Fear of the unknown (the future)
- Fear of change
- Fear of what others might think it they truly knew us (our innermost thoughts and beliefs)
- Fear of aging
- Fear of dying
More important than identifying the various forms of fear, however, is being cognizant of their consequences. In other words, what do these fears cause us to do or not to do that impacts our happiness or ability to live a meaningful life?
I think the consequences are quite significant. And, often-times, quite harmful. Indeed, fear represents a major threat to our well-being.
Conversely, I’ve come to think that courage is an undervalued trait. I’ve come to believe that only the courageous are able to live life to its fullest. I’ve come to believe we should spend less time worrying about our kids getting As and more time helping them become courageous.
I’ve seen the consequences of fear in my own and other people’s lives in ways that are life diminishing. I’ve seen (or read about) people (sometimes, myself or my country):
- remain in a job they hate because they’re too scared to leave;
- stay in abusive marriages;
- cheat and steal because they feared losing business, money, their job or their boss’s favor (Indeed, I’ve visited some of these people in prison and had one commit suicide when discovered.);
- demean themselves by kissing someone else’s posterior because they feared the consequences of not doing so (I’ve seen this a lot.);
- talk incessantly about dreams they’ve never pursued because of the fear of the risks posed by taking chances or changing paths;
- prolong their lives to the point all they can do is sit in a chair or lie in a bed all day, disengaged from their surroundings, due to their fear of death;
- invade another country without just cause, torture others and drop bombs indiscriminately on civilians due to fear of the violence others might bring (and perhaps other motivations);
- become stagnant and embrace mediocrity (toads, I call them) due to the fear of change (a very strong fear among some);
- dress a certain way or buy a certain house out of fear of what others might think if they dressed the way they truly wanted to dress or lived in a house that best fit their values and preferences; and
- devote their lives to getting As, degrees or other credentials for fear of not being better than other people (at least in their own minds).
I’ve also seen the fear in a dying person’s eyes and the fear in the eyes and voice of a man who was sitting on death row mainly because he was black and poor and could not hire a good lawyer to push back against a racist system.
I have felt some of these fears myself and continue to be fearful in many respects. I can tell you this, Vera: it never feels good. Or right.
But I’ve also witnessed courage, sometimes up close and personal, sometimes from afar. I’ve read about people who sacrificed their own lives to save the life of another. I’ve read about a man who allowed himself to be executed, in part I believe, because he knew the destructive force of fear in people’s’ lives and the transforming power of courage. I’ve known how it felt when I’ve done the right think even knowing it would likely come at a cost. I’ve read about it and seen people die in dignity, without fear. I’ve seen people do what I would like to do, the only thing separating us being their courage and my fear. I’ve felt regret for having not done things, knowing it was fear and fear alone that clung to the status quo. I’ve known people who have an inner security and lack of fear over what others might think or what the future might hold, and I sense the fullness and serenity of their lives.
In my prior post, Vera, I cautioned against the force that seeks to convince you of your own unworthiness. One of its principal weapons, I am convinced, is fear. Together they stand between you and the full life you can live.
I am not advocating recklessness. Or stupid risk taking. Rather, I am advocating courage. And mindful risk taking. And being willing to make mistakes. And being willing to look different or foolish in the eyes of the fearful.
As a youth I was terrified of water (drowning to be precise). To overcome this fear, however, I did not jump into a lake. Tragic consequences would have been predictable. I was fortunate that Penn State required all students to learn how to swim (or at least take the class). Involuntarily and with an ample dose of trepidation and fear, I donned the embarrassing speedo that was issued to all the boys and did that which was required: get in the !#@$%& pool.
For the first week or so, we were taught the basics in the shallow end of the pool. It wasn’t fun, but neither was it threatening. I could always stand up. There was a great sense of security in that realization. But then, for reasons unbeknownst to me, the instructor told us to line up at the edge of the deep end of the pool (14 feet, I vividly recall) and swim across. &?!#@!, I thought. Anyone in her right mind would know we needed more time in the shallow end. They would know we weren’t ready to go in over our heads.
Yet, here I was, confronted by two equally powerful fears: the fear of drowning and the fear of being different. What if I was the only one left behind, clinging to the edge of the pool like a scaredy-cat, when that whistle blew? How would that look? How would that feel? Similarly, what if I had to be rescued in mid-pool? (I’m assuming the instructor wouldn’t have stood by and watched me drown.) How incredibly embarrassing would that be? I had but a few seconds to decide. The whistle blew. I swam. The fear of embarrassment from being left behind proved to be the stronger of my two fears. I made it to the other side. And in those few fleeting moments, my fear of water evaporated like a summertime’s sprinkle on a hot Colorado road.
I’m not suggesting all fears can be so easily overcome. They can’t. Nor am I suggesting an equivalency between the fear of water and some of the other fears I’ve mentioned above. There isn’t. But I am suggesting that, sometimes, succumbing to our fears is a choice. Many fears are a product of our upbringing or societal forces that seek to keep us in check. When we choose to submit to those fears, it isn’t because we must; rather, it is because we choose.
The reality is, the only way to overcome certain fears is to confront them. Sometimes, we simply have to act. And take risks. And be willing to make and accept mistakes. And be willing to risk failure. Sometimes, we must simply muster courage. And perhaps even step forth in faith.
If I’m around when you’re old enough to understand or care, I will tell you the story of why the fear of death is no longer a powerful force in my life. And I will tell you how liberating it is.
Fear is perhaps the most powerful force in the world. It is a tool of those who would seek to control us, nudge us into their way of thinking or have us act in ways that benefit them. It is alluring because oft-times it comes disguised as safety and security. Yet it always extracts a high price. It always leads to a relinquishment of our independence and that inner warmth that comes from having done the right thing for the right reason. It always leaves a sour taste in our souls. It is a taste that repels happiness.
Courage isn’t always easy to muster, Vera. And sometimes it comes at a cost — indeed, the cost can be high. Yet it is in those moments when the mind seems more alive, colors more vibrant, and peace and grace more present. Indeed, it is in those moments that what appear to be costs to another are experienced as a deeply meaningful and life-giving sacrifice. It is in those moments when one experiences the fullness of life.