“Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.” – Bertrand Russell
We live in fearful times. Besides the usual—everyday—fears of not being liked or getting old, we’re also afraid of being attacked by terrorists and blown up. Statistically, this isn’t likely, but it is presented as a possibility every time we watch the news. It tends to wear us down, like water eventually wears away rock. For those of us who are disabled there’re other possibilities. Not necessarily probabilities—but possibilities. What if we lose our incomes or health care? As those fears pile up, we get more fearful.
Yet there are people who seem to be unafraid—or at least they do things that are brave. People who willingly get arrested for their beliefs—Martin Luther King, Jr., the signers of our Declaration of Independence, the thousands who risked their lives and sometimes lost them doing what they thought was right. They may have been afraid, but they weren’t terrified and they didn’t panic.
Facing up to fear is hard, no matter what anyone says. Sometimes fear is a very realistic response to a situation. It was realistic for civil rights marchers to be afraid of getting beat. Most of us know what the “flight or flight” response is; it’s triggered by fear.
Adrenaline pumps throughout our bodies, our vascular system closes down; our breathing becomes shallow: we’re ready—we hope—to stand up for ourselves or to get away as quickly as possible. This is a response that’s been with us forever—probably since our first ancestors had to figure out what to do when a big carnivore began walking toward them, licking its chops. Fear has great value.
Fear also can lead us to great rewards. It can show us who we are, what we can do. It can bring us gifts.
Some of the Indian people of the Northwest Coast have a story about a horrible sea monster named Sisiutl. When you walk along the beach and see the stone cliffs, you can often see faces in the stone. These faces, they say, are the remains of people who saw Sisiutl and tried to run away; their souls were eaten by the monster and they were turned to stone. Nobody can outrun Sisiutl. You see trees that are broken off or twisted into terrible shapes; the trees saw Sisiutl coming and tried to run but they couldn’t.
Some people claim Sisiutl has three heads: the two outside heads are of ghastly monsters; the inside head is that of a human being. Other people say the monster only has two horrible heads, one at each end of its huge snake-like body. But they all agree that when humans, or trees, or anything, sees Sisiutl and try to run away, they always get caught and turned to stone or twisted into terrible shapes. So, if you see Sisiutl and Sisiutl see you, there’s great danger. But—
—Sisiutl’s heads (no matter if there’re two or three heads) cannot see each other. Sisiutl doesn’t know what it looks like. If someone doesn’t run from the monster, but stands and faces the it, the heads will look at that person. When that happens, Sisiutl will see all of its heads. This pleases the monster so much, it will give the person a wonderful gift: the Vision People will come and live inside him or her and the person will be able to see Truth. Fear will no longer rule her or his life: Truth will. It won’t always be easy, but once someone realizes she or he faced Sisiutl and survived, that person can face anything.
That’s what I believe happens when I face my own fears and act with courage. Courage, someone once said, is the greatest of all virtues, because without courage, none of the other virtues are possible.
Here’s a story from the other side of the world:
Lions love gazelles—at least gazelle meat. But the little antelopes are very fast and can easily outrun lions. So what the lions do is cooperate. A group of young fast lions will start stalking a herd of gazelles; the gazelles will move away from the lions. But the lions are actually moving the gazelles in a certain direction, toward tall grass. In that grass there are older slower lions—big lions. They can hardly run, but they can stand up and roar. When the herd is moved close to the old lions, that’s just what they do. The gazelles are frightened and turn and run toward the young lions…
If the gazelles had continued toward the roaring but decrepit lions, they could have easily escaped, but they didn’t. They didn’t know that their own fears were unrealistic. They sealed their own fates by running the other direction.
I’ve had a lot of unrealistic fears in my own life, of course. A big one, that still pops up, is that by being really honest about what’s going on with me, I’ll seem—to others (to me, actually)—to be petty or silly
or childish. Sometimes I am petty, silly, childish; we all are from time to time; those feelings are within the range of normal human emotions. When I try to hide them, I usually become even more petty, silly, and childish. But, if I’m honest and take the risk of saying what I really feel, the other stuff—the defenses—go away. They aren’t important any more. The people who like me for who I am still like me; the people who don’t like me when I’m being honest…life’s too short to put up with them. False Expectations Appearing Real:
F.E.A.R.—Someone, one time, told me that; I like it, because a lot of my what-if fears are: utterly unreal. False expectations.
So that’s what, for me, facing my fears is all about. It isn’t about not being afraid, it’s about not being overcome by them. Facing the awful monsters, going toward the roar.
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