Putting Fear in Perspective

January 13th, 2013

Comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, said

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’d rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.

When you put it like that, it’s a stark contrast. Fear IS stark, and offers a clear choice. Sometimes fear is so overwhelming that you would rather curl up and die than do the thing you fear. On the positive side, as Emerson said, “do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.” Now that’s something worth aiming for! On the other side of fear is freedom. Often the only way from fear to freedom is an act of will, sheer courage. Remember that courage is not sailing through challenge unscathed. Courage is doing the hard thing, WITH fear, and doing it anyway.

The irony of fear is that its purpose has always been survival and yet fear itself threatens to kill us. Fear triggers the fight or flight response to protect yourself from a wild beast, or crazy drivers or whatever danger exists; which is an appropriate and necessary use of fear. But when fear that is often irrational and unnecessary, becomes all consuming, and paralyzes you, it condemns you to a living death.

I love the movie, 127 hours. It’s the true story of a guy (Aron Ralston) who goes canyoning by himself and ends up with his arm wedged between two boulders. Once he realizes that no one is going to find him, he decides that his only hope for survival is to free himself by cutting off his arm.

As I watched the movie, I thought to myself “Would I have the courage to do that? Or would I resign myself to death? Would fear motivate me to fight for my life or would it paralyze me? Would I persist through agonizing pain to reach freedom on the other side?”

I can only hope I would have his courage. Freedom is worth the cost of an arm or a leg. Fear might tell me otherwise, but I know better. Fear doesn’t have the whole picture. I see beyond fear.

The choice is clear. Allow yourself to be ruled by fear and suffer a slow and painful living death or enjoy the exhilaration of conquering fear and finding freedom. And I don’t just mean freedom from the boulders. The freedom that comes from overcoming fear is much bigger than that. It’s a freedom that fills everything you do from then on with a new quality of power.

In the book 127 Hours, Ralston describes the moment after he cuts his arm off:

This is the most intense feeling of my life. I fear I might explode from the exhilarating shock and ecstasy that paralyze my body for a long moment as I lean against the wall.

The final scene in the movie is the epitome of freedom, with Ralston surrounded by family and friends, swimming blissfully with one arm. His story is a great inspiration to use the power of fear to overcome fear itself.

Fear comes in all shapes and sizes. As Stephen Wright said, “A lot of people are afraid of heights. Not me. I’m afraid of widths.” I can relate. I have some odd fears myself. I’m afraid of small furry creatures. There’s no rational reason for it.  I just have a fear that tiny kitties are going to attack me. And I’m a little afraid of the dark. Oh, and I have a bad case of Arachibutrophobia; the fear of peanut butter getting stuck on the roof of my mouth. Well you have to admit it feels like you’re going to choke.

We all have different issues. There is fear of leaving a relationship, and the fear of commitment; the fear of leaving a job and the fear of changing careers, the fear of danger, the fear of new places, the fear of people who are different and the fear of change generally.

It’s likely a little different for men and women. Generally speaking, women fear loss and men fear being inadequate. The basis of both is the same; the fear of loss of identity if your relationships or accomplishments don’t measure up to your expectation. Its basic homeland security; where we expect to find security in how other people make us feel or how achievements make us feel. This sort of security is insatiable and fickle.

The antidote to fear is acceptance; being at home in your own skin and accepting the world as it is rather than as you need it to be to give you a sense of security.

Apart from the healthy fear triggers that remind us to look before crossing the road and test people with small things before trusting them with big things, fear is often a fabrication of our over active imaginations. FEAR is False Evidence Appearing Real; the things we convince ourselves we need to fret about.

It’s like the classic story about the man who wakes in the middle of the night to see what he assumes is a poisonous snake coiled next to his leg at the foot of his bed. All night long he lies awake, frozen in terror, praying that the snake doesn’t bite him. As dawn breaks he realizes that the “snake” was no snake at all, but a belt that he forgot to put away when he went to bed. His fear was a complete fabrication of his mind.

Lao Tzu said,  “There is no illusion greater than fear.”

We all fall for this in different ways. The fear that we will lose our identity if we don’t get the security we crave is the snake at the end of the bed. The security is an illusion and the loss of identity is an illusion.

Put your fears at ease. Remind them that you are whole and lovable, abundant and brilliant already, and this essence doesn’t need to be protected and it can’t be lost, only forgotten. Shine the light of acceptance on your fear, and it will be shrunk to size.

Rise above your fear and let your potential shine. Break the fear barrier and transform fear into courage. What fear called risk will soon be revealed as opportunity.

C. JoyBell C said,

Don’t be afraid of your fears. They’re not there to scare you. They’re there to let you know that something is worth it.

Worth fighting for, worth overcoming, worth letting your potential shine.

Say to your fears: I’m not afraid of you anymore. You are paper tigers, and I’m ready to roar.

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  1. Jeanne Maxon says:

    Hellooo – amazing (and not) – Your column today was written especially to me and a situation I faced yesterday.  Thanks, and it’s okay if others get something from it, too!  :)

  2. Jim Skinner says:

    Worst is the fear of something beyond your control

  3. Kath says:

    Just today, I had that fear feeling at the bottom of my chest which occurs when a fear trigger is tripped.  The first was when I bought a computer for my son and realized my husband, the programmer, is not here to set it up.  I breathed the fear place, tried not to snap at my son, and watched and waited for the feeling dissolve.  Then I told myself that ordinary people set up computers.  It might go badly, it might go quite well.  But the sun will likely still rise tomorrow.  And my son and I had a good conversation about doing things about which we feel uncertain.

    Then I discovered my computer was hacked.  Friends replied to idiotic emails, all but one believing I sent the message.  (That always baffles me.)  And I felt the same feeling in my body.  This time, the fear trigger was rejection.  A few breaths later, I googled for a method to correct the problem and implemented it. 

    Uncertainty, moving outside my comfort zone, is one trigger for my fears.  My other fear trigger is rejection, the idea of being alone.  Because I know about the triggers, they don’t sneak up on me so easily.  And when they do, body awareness gives me time and space to acknowledge the feelings and move out of panicky fog and into quiet clarity.  

    In the yoga sutras, the opposite of suffering is space.  Body awareness tells me I need to make some space or suffering will occur.