I think fear is what keeps us from going over the edge. I mean, as a race car driver, I don’t think what makes a good race car driver is a fearless person. I think it’s somebody that is comfortable being behind the wheel of something that’s somewhat out of control. ~ Jeff Gordon
Fear. Who among us hasn’t experienced it at some point in our lives? Fear is universal, and even the animal kingdom confronts it. For many of us, it is a feeling that is experienced on a regular basis. For the fortunate few, it is a momentary annoyance. Whether it is a common occurrence or a rarity, the crucial factor is how we respond to it. Do we shrink from it and allow it to guide our actions, and our lives, or do we take a deep breath, brace ourselves and look it in the eye, much like the underdog facing the reining champion? It all comes down to a question of control and courage. Do we allow it to control us or do we have the courage to refuse to cede control to the powerful emotion?
The question comes to mind as I confront a bout of depression. It is not a ‘dark night of the soul’ by any means. It is more like a physical, emotional and mental exhaustion that persists, in spite of what I do. I know that, as is always the case, it will pass, but I find it difficult to wait patiently for that to happen.
Many years ago, I was reading one of my many yoga magazines and I stumbled across a review about a book written by the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. Until that point, I hadn’t heard of her. I don’t even remember the name of the book being reviewed, but I was taken by the book’s summary and the positive review that it received. At first, I was reluctant to read the book, because having been raised as a Christian (Catholic), I was taught to view other religions with a huge degree of skepticism and disbelief. (Among other things, Buddhism differs from Christianity in that it eschews a belief in the existence of a god.) When I was younger, it was “us” versus “them.” Fortunately, with age came a curiosity about other faiths, their beliefs and practices, as well as faith in my unshakable beliefs.
Anyway, that first book became the first of many books and CD’s that I devoured by Chödrön. She teaches in an authentic, honest,. compassionate, and loving way, but she doesn’t shy away from the truth. The current book that I am re-reading is “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times,” which uses Buddhist wisdom and techniques, often mediation and mindfulness, to successfully deal with life’s difficulties. Regarding fear, she is direct and tells the following tale:
“Once there was a young warrior. Her teacher told her that she had to do battle with fear. She didn’t want to do that. It seemed too aggressive; it was scary; it seemed unfriendly. But the teacher said she had to do it and gave her the instructions for the battle. The day arrived. The student warrior stood on one side, and fear stood on the other. The warrior was feeling very small, and fear was looking big and wrathful. They both had their weapons. The young warrior roused herself and went toward fear, prostrated three times, and asked, “May I have permission to go into battle with you?” Fear said, “Thank you for showing me so much respect that you ask permission.” Then the young warrior said, “How can I defeat you?” Fear replied, “My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.” In that way, the student warrior learned how to defeat fear. ”
~ Pema Chödrön, “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times“
Whether true or fictional, the tale is instructive. As I mentioned earlier, the question of courage enters the equation. All too often, we allow our emotions to control our behavior, because we can’t muster the courage to overcome them. Thus, we act according to the emotion, be it guilt, shame or fear. In that respect, we allow the emotion to exert power over us. By acknowledging the fear, but overcoming the very powerful urge to act in accordance with it, we free ourselves of its hold over us. I do not claim that this is an easy feat. If I believed so, I would not have chosen “courage” as my word for 2014, as this earlier post indicates.
In my case, I’ve discovered that control is tied to the act of being vulnerable, which itself raises the specter of fear. As I wrote, there are times when I felt that:
[b]eing vulnerable meant admitting that I wasn’t perfect, that I don’t have it all together, that sometimes I feel lost, and that sometimes I need, among other things, love, help, support, a shoulder to cry on, to vent, that sometimes, I just don’t know, and need help finding the answers. I realize that I need the courage to be imperfect, thus, the courage to be vulnerable.
Granted, acknowledging my fears, opens myself to being viewed as weak, something that is frowned upon in our society. Nevertheless, failing to do so, brings with it a denial of my true self, and for me, sharing my journey of discovery demands openness and honesty, no matter how uncomfortable or vulnerable that may be. With that said, my goal is to face fear, and have the courage to triumph over it. As this year has passed, I’ve had many successes, but a few missteps. Yet, acknowledging my fears has become far easier, and I know that though I may fall, I will continue to pick myself up, and “begin again.”
What about you? How do you deal with fear? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
This evening, I was driving my 6 1/2 year old granddaughter to my house. As is my custom, I was listening to NPR when they reported on the Boston explosions. I exclaimed that it was terrible that such a thing happened. Immediately, Daisy asked me what happened and I told her that there was an explosion and that some people died and many were injured. She wondered aloud why there were so many “bad” people in the world. Since I had no ready answer to that question, I quickly assured her that there were far more good people in the world than bad.
She seemed satisfied by that answer. Still, Her face grew pensive and she was very quiet. After a couple minutes, she spoke and solemnly shared that she had just prayed for the dead and injured, as well as their families. I was so proud of her, but at the same time saddened that I couldn’t protect her from the reality of it all.
Later, I heard that it was possible that one of the dead was an 8 year old boy. Daisy overheard it too, and again she grew quiet. We did not discuss the issue again until later as she prepared to return home.
She came up to me in a hushed voice, and a super serious face to inform me that indeed one of the dead was an 8 year old boy–the same age as some of her peers. The look on her face was one of fear and confusion. It broke my heart.
Her dad, who was standing beside her, immediately took her in his arms, and while squeezing her tight, told her that he was there to take care of and protect her, so she needn’t worry. She appeared heartened by his words and hung on to him for dear life.
As an adult, children look to us for answers to their many questions. Many of those questions are quite easy to answer but others, like in this instance, leave us scrambling for a proper response. The thing is that I can not begin to explain it to her, when I don’t understand it myself.
Sadly, it is times like this when we can’t prevent the truth of the matter from tarnishing their innocent, childlike view of the world. It reminds me of the fragility of a child’s world and everything that can happen to shatter their innocence and belief in the goodness of the world.
My heart is heavy because I know that though this may be the first incident that chipped away at her innocence, it won’t be the last. The reality is that try as we might, we can’t always shelter them from the harshness of our world.
As an adult, I believe that we
have a duty to reassure our young children that in spite of the inexplicable happenings surrounding them, they are safe and protected. For a time at least, we can protect them from the reality that all too often, bad things happen to good people.
I know that we can’t shelter them forever, but until they are old enough to fully comprehend such incidents, I have no problem pretending that life is fair, and that no harm can come to them. I know the truth, but they don’t have to. Let them hold on to their innocent for as long as possible. They will have to face the truth soon enough.