I’ve heard it before, this notion that says: Actually, we need our fear. It’s promoted in Elizabeth Gilbert’s excellent new book Big Magic, and it echoes inside me, where I have in the past thought this same thing. Yeah, I knew I’d heard it before.
But while it’s true we need to be able to stand up for ourselves—even defend ourselves, when necessary—we don’t need to be in fear to do this. More to the point, it’s our fear that prevents us from doing this effectively. When you get right down to it, all fear is actually illusion based on painful past experiences. And how can we need an illusion?
Fear is that feeling in the gut that says something out there is somehow going to hurt me. Stemming from painful childhood experiences, fear creates a film over everything we see, looking for the scene that is reminiscent of something hurtful that happened back then. Aha, it says, I’ve spotted it. See, I needed my fear to keep me safe.
We walk through life in a trance, seeing the world through this hypersensitive filter.
Armed with this type of defensive strategy, we walk through life in a trance, seeing the world through this hypersensitive filter. This perpetual pinging of everything crossing our path can keep our system on semi-alert, and keep us in an elevated state of perceived stress. Our physical body joins this hunt for hurtful things by constantly dumping low doses of cortisol into our blood. Just in case. Because, you never know. We might need it. At any moment.
But cortisol does things to the body, like reducing bone formation—think: osteoporosis—and weakening the immune system—think: get sick. Worse yet, should we find ourselves in need of using our God-given ability to think and act and defend ourselves in a truly unsafe situation, all this “preparation” has made us less able to think and take appropriate action. Because when we’re living in fear, we’re effectively living in a trance.
In harm’s way, our bodies and our brains—if we are present in the moment—will kick in to do what’s needed. Courage and bravery will not be our problem. We only need those when we are faced with fear. When real danger shows up, people are known to do heroic things that save the day and the dear ones who needed help.
Fear arises from that part of ourselves that wants us to stay separate—to stay very afraid. It whispers in our ear about a past that haunts us, and uses this to keep us in unreality. The way out is through the work of self-knowing, coming to see these painful traps for what they are.
In his insightful memoir Open, Andre Agassi says, “What you feel doesn’t matter in the end; it’s what you do that makes you brave.” In other words: you gotta feel the fear and do it anyways. And that can take some guts.
But it will be far easier to take those difficult steps if we stop telling ourselves that our fear is what keeps us safe. We need to unravel our fears. We do this by finding the courage to face the very real ghosts of our own hidden painful past.
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