I am by no means qualified to talk about real fear – the terror that is war and imminent death. Life-threatening situations don’t call for much discussion. I cannot imagine such terror and I am infinitely grateful for not having experienced that, except in dreams. At those times when I have come close, real fear has been an overwhelming sensation, driving me to immediate action. Fortunately, for most of us, those situations are few and far between. But they do happen and they make an impression.
The fear I am writing about is the generalized fear that seeps into the mind and colors the point of view. The fear that lingers, just in case. The sound of the unknown. The silent lessons about not to go here or there. Invisible detours and bends in the road that push and pull like a current, just below the senses … fear that can lead to an overall sense of helplessness and disappointment with the world.
A couple of summers ago, I was hiking in Glacier National Park, looking for a waterfall to photograph. I came across a stream below the waterfall that tumbled into a deep blue pool. In order to get the shot I wanted, I had to cross the stream at a lower point. There was a log that reached out part of the way. I would have to step out on that log, holding on to an overhead branch, and then lurch forward with a long step and grab onto a branch on the other side. Momentum would carry me across. There was a time, back in the day, when I would not have given that gap a second thought.
At nearly 70 years old, however, I did not feel quite so cavalier. I knew my physical abilities weren’t what they once were … I also knew confidence was the key … apprehension was the enemy … it was as though I couldn’t help myself. I short-armed my reach and slipped into the water. A lack of commitment. A failure of imagination.
This is the way fear creeps in.
It only takes one genuine fight or flight response to etch a template onto the nervous system. I was seriously bitten by a dog when I was five. I have never really been a dog fan. Real fear marks the spot. Whatever happens, I don’t want to go there again. Soon the map is littered with spots to avoid. It becomes a pattern. Better to avoid the whole thing. The brain is built to generalize.
There is no dispute about actual fear when it happens. What I am pointing to is the fear that lingers, like a soft light, outlining life with flickering shadows. I have met people who seem to be afraid of everything. They want to stick with whatever it was they remember being safe with, way back when. Not going anywhere, not doing anything, not even thinking differently, means it can’t get worse. Such people tremble at ideas. I can remember, when I was young, actually being afraid to think this or that thing … as if a black hole lurked at the back of my mind.
Fear works by inhibiting our reach.
We develop elaborate stories to explain the opportunity cost.
Fear becomes a habit … or rather, the behavior that was energized by the fear becomes a habit. I forget why I do what I do. I lose sight of the way fear has managed my expectations. Too often, fear has insinuated its way into situations I find ‘good enough’. I can feel a bit helpless when I see how fear has diluted my thinking. Eventually I realize that it’s always been that way … it is a part of life. Loss leaves a mark.
Generalizing that reaction, that fear of mistakes … that fear of tearing a precious mental picture … the lurking eruption of the unknown … has held me back sometimes – “I don’t want to go that way again.” (Already expecting the feeling to be exactly the same). In a flash, I project the whole story before it happens. That is the fear I am talking about here. A slight shortness of breath, a subtle apprehension that wakes up with me like a mist in the morning and floats into the nooks and crannies throughout the day … a threshold that is poked by the unexpected. Eventually I developed a way of seeing that takes my timidity into account. I am not so much open to anything as I am looking to validate a certain point of view.
I have grown familiar with fear. Little bells rattling in the background. My skin starts to tingle when the uncertainty becomes too much. Oddly, I like that state, when my thinking wobbles. I like how it challenges my commitment to a certain point of view. The apprehension reminds me not to come up short. There is no point in trying to avoid something that is not actually happening. Why do I do that? What am I getting ready for? By experiencing the mental tremble, it flows away and eases the tightness in my mind.
Because fear has its origins in reality, it too often becomes an excuse. I still find it legitimate to decide not to do something ‘because something about it doesn’t feel right …’. It can be convenient not to sort out ‘I don’t think I should’ from ‘I don’t want to’. Sometimes I have secretly blamed fear for something I just didn’t want to do.
Biology has a lot to do with it too. We are creatures of the earth. Emotions are intended to be expressed. Unexpressed feelings pile up in the body. Timid heads are pulled into shoulders, bellies surround vulnerable hearts, stifled punches ache. Fear can build a shell. Safer that way. When bodies undergo physical therapy, like deep massage, a lifetime of emotions can be released … a living record of ‘keeping things to myself’.
This fear must be approached gently. But it must be approached. Otherwise, I am bound by circumstances I do not understand. Too many decisions are made out of fear. I am learning to live with uncertainty. It’s easier, now that I am older, my reach no longer needs to exceed my grasp. But I did not always recognize it, when fear rose its head back in the day: fear of being excluded, fear of being weak, fear of not being worthy. Fear can be crippling.
However, looked at rightly, fear produces a hero. This is the destiny of every person. This is what all the stories are about. How sure do I really want to be about what will happen next? There’s a good chance that fear will pop up, whatever I do, to test my better nature. Everyone’s story is to rise above it.
Without the tension created by duality, a certain languor can set in. While I’m alive, I will never be sure for long. Like everything else – I may not be able to change the thing, but I can always change my reaction to the thing. My reaction is the way I see it. That changes almost daily. I have to make an effort to keep it the same.
Looking back, I can see how I sought the tension, the vitality that accompanies fear. There has to be a wrong side for there to be an edge. Seems to me I looked for that line right out of the gate. In an odd way, I feel more myself in those situations. I feel called upon. More fully here now.
Trepidation is a rhythm that threads through life. Fear is a sense. Like seeing infra-red or ultra-violet. Like intuition. Fear usually does not mean cut and run any more. These days. fear usually means an idea is threatened. Perhaps it is best to let that idea go. We are bound to explore these edges … in order to get to the essence of who we are, that fear must be gently unwrapped.
As we get older, it falls to us to refine everything – our surroundings, our feelings, our minds … our point of view. Refining fear is on that agenda. Disappearing fear is a fool’s errand. Pretending fear is not a part of life is just patching up the tapestry. Finding a working relationship with fear can produce the here and now in all its splendor. The story is as old as words themselves. To be a hero, to become myself, fear is where I want to go.