Fear is the cage and the key.
Someone recently asked me to write about fear, which is a complex, multi-faceted topic. Some fear is obviously a life-saver. I want to fear getting close to the edge of an actual cliff. I want to fear walking through a strange neighborhood at night. That sort of fear is our animal self, yelling at us to “Pay Attention!” We need to pay attention. We need to find a way to assess a situation as accurately as possible. Fear becomes a key.
Risk assessment and attention are two things that fear helps point us to. But how often do we actually do either? In other situations, our animal nature, or our rational mind, will argue with us that something is a risk, and therefore we should avoid it at all costs. The shouts of “Pay Attention!” that would be of help in a situation of possible danger become, instead, a way to not pay attention to what is really happening around us, but to pay attention, instead, to the emotions fueling the fear. We start to see monsters lurking in closets where there are none. Our minds choreograph spectacular failures that we just know will happen. Fear has become a cage.
I often tell my clients and students that everything in life is about relationship, and every relationship entails risk. Facing risk is part of how we grow, it is how we learn new things, it is a way to engage our curiosity so we can say “I wonder…” – how this works, or what might happen – rather than “I know…” I’ve written in the past about running toward danger. This practice has enlarged my strength, my ability to learn, and even my heart. Yes. I risk more in relationships now. This doesn’t mean I engage in “risky relationships” but rather, I take more risks in the relationships that are important to me. What helps with this? Again, that phrase “I wonder…”
My past, my emotions, my old thought forms still want to manufacture “I know…” and freeze my words and actions. Recognizing that this is just fear helps me to understand that in most cases, that fear is pointing to something that feels emotionally dangerous, or dangerous to my parts that like to know the outcome before they begin, or dangerous to the parts that would rather sit in bed and read all day than confront a difficult truth. Recognizing that this is just fear, I can assess the situation and say, “What is actually happening here? Oh. I feel afraid. All right, I can re-center, breathe, and find energy to back up the words I need to say, or the questions I need to ask.” Facing these sorts of fears helps to deepen intimacy in relationship with ourselves, with our friends and loved ones, and with the world.
I even think it makes us better people. It also helps me to walk through a strange neighborhood at night and more accurately assess real danger, rather than populating the streets with phantoms that may not exist. It enables me to shift my posture to one of confidence which then makes it less likely that what I fear will actually come to pass. And who knows? Around the next corner might be that little underground club I would not otherwise have come across had my partner and I not taken a risk in order to find something strange in Florence that one night, instead of relying on a guidebook. We followed stairs down from the nondescript door, paid for a membership, and drank sidecars while listening to jazz.
Fear can help us. Fear can also box us in. We have to learn to trust ourselves to know which kind of fear is which. The emotion cannot become the driver of our carriage, nor its master, but we can listen when the horses tell us they feel spooked, and decide either to turn the corner, or reassure them that the driver knows the way, or is willing to take responsibility for not knowing and moving toward the music anyway.