Fear is good. It keeps us alive. It keeps us from falling off cliffs, touching fire and kissing rattlesnakes. But fear is also our greatest liability. It keeps us from taking the risks necessary to develop our unrealized potential. If we let it, fear has the power to keep us from becoming who we really are. Fear is a thief that steals our joy.
The daily work of every thinking man and woman is to practice careful discernment in the assessment of their fear. A life of pointless risk-taking is dangerous and foolish while a life devoted to the avoidance of all risk is doomed to frustration, stagnation and incompletion. Fear is neither good nor evil; it is a message from our psyche that must be read with great care. Cultivating the skill to interpret fear accurately is an essential task in the creation of the well-lived and fully-realized life. When fear arises, ask yourself these seven questions.
1. If I do this frightening thing, will it bring real quality and beauty into my life?
2. If I do this frightening thing, will it move me further toward the fullest expression of my innate potentialities?
3. Am I respecting my health and life, and the health and life of others?
4. Is this fear really just a misguided attempt to protect my fragile and limiting self-image?
5. Is this apprehension and anxiety simply the death-throes of my outmoded ways of acting, thinking and being in the world?
6. If I took these risks and let go of my old ways of acting, thinking and being in the world, would I be closer to my highest good?
7. Is the larger purpose of my life the realization of my highest good as opposed to being comfortable?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, your fear is telling you something important. You should probably listen. It’s difficult to reach your highest potential if you are maimed or dead, and it’s difficult to manifest your fullest happiness if your actions harm others. But if you can answer yes to even one of these questions, then you should override your fear and take action. And by the way, if you can answer yes to even one of these questions, you are implicitly answering yes to all of them.
Helpful research from the field of psychology shows that our thinking is stuck in two important and debilitating ways. The first is negative thinking. We tend to exaggerate the scale and frequency of negative situations and minimize or overlook positive situations or circumstances. Through tens of thousands of years of evolution, human consciousness has grown highly adept at scanning the horizon, both literally and figuratively, for problems and potential disasters. The individual who most rapidly perceives the impending problem – the crouching Saber toothed tiger, the lethally poisonous snake, the toxic forest mushroom – has a far better chance of survival and passing on his genes. Natural selection rewards caution.
If negative thinking isn’t successfully challenged, the mistaken notion that fearful living equals wisdom takes hold, hindering the necessary risk required in any process of growth or advancement.
The second prevalent mode of consciousness that seems to have grown beyond the bounds of its usefulness is confirmation bias. We exaggerate evidence that supports our preconceived positions and ignore or denigrate evidence that challenges our preconceived positions. The positive aspect of confirmation bias is that in enables us to bond tightly with an in-group that shares our perspective, a dynamic that helps us form close families and tribes. The negative aspect of confirmation bias is that it locks us into a worldview in which accurate and wide-ranging critical thinking is no longer possible. Our fears become dogma – unquestionable truths closed to inquiry and investigation.
When you put negative thinking and confirmation bias together, you have a serious problem. All manner of evils begin to take shape – racism, xenophobia, nationalism, bigotry, arrogance, and ethnocentrism. In other words, fear becomes the idol before which all must kneel. To move beyond fear means to correct the imbalance and empirical inaccuracy of negative thinking and confirmation bias. An honest assessment of the environment shows that the universe is not a hostile, dangerous field of impending disasters. Yes there are dangers, but the fact remains that we are supported and nourished continually by an uninterrupted flow of abundance. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the light and beauty and love of the world and its myriad creatures hold us aloft in an unbreakable web of being. This isn’t some hippie dream. It’s a measurable fact.
And when we begin to awaken from the illusion of individual and tribal superiority, our natural humility is restored and we begin to recognize that our ideologies and arguments are not universally authoritative – there are other, equally valid ways of understanding the complexities before us and there are other, equally viable ways of organizing society, determining justice and supporting what is best in us. In other words, we move from fearful self-obsession to loving-kindness. A broad and generous smile replaces the narrow, guarded squint through which we had been viewing the world.
And when we begin to view the world differently, the world changes. As the Talmud reminds us, “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”
Breaking free of the debilitating effects of fear is an inside job.
Maybe the first step is to recognize that uncertainty is a necessary precondition for all growth and emergence. How could a seed know what lay above the surface of the soil? Yet it pushes upward anyway. How could a mother know what lay ahead for her and her baby? But she gives birth anyway. How could a guitar player know if this solo is going to be great or an awkward failure? But he throws himself into it with finesse, skill and abandon anyway, trusting the truth that there is no beauty without risk. Becoming comfortable with uncertainty is an essential component of any creative process, especially the creation of a magnificent life.
It was early in the year 1933. America was in the abyss of the Great Depression and genuine hardship was tearing apart the fabric of this once great nation. In the opening lines of his first inaugural address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke the immortal words, “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Ten million Americans heard his voice crackling through their radios, and many more read his words in the next morning’s paper. His simple truth struck a chord and sparked a shift in consciousness. The radical notion that fear itself was the enemy – not external conditions no matter how dire – was a message that brought hope into a hopeless world. How powerful it is to consider the possibility that fear, an important ally when carefully and critically managed, can become the most crippling hindrance.