There is so much we fear in life. We dread change, we are trepidatious about failure. We are worried about failing health, afraid of accidents, and at some, often unconscious level, we are apprehensive about not getting it all right … as if the secret to a happy life was a formula with exact requirements and after having fulfilled those requirements we would be THERE—that place where all is well and nothing bad ever happens.
Fear rules us often. And then something bad does, in fact, happen. Something we’ve dreaded or didn’t even know to fear happens, and we wake to find ourselves dazed and bloodied, suddenly uncertain of everything. Life attacks and a new fear may ascend then, one primitive and destabilizing … the type of fear that inspires one to stay in the cave of one’s bed and simply refuse to face the day.
Life is life. She is capricious and will have her way with us irrespective of our magical thoughts, or our perfect formulaic life, or the talismans we wear around our necks. Death, to paraphrase the poet Michael Ryan’s poem “Extended Care,” rises like a dinosaur out of a duck pond and so, too, do disease, injustice, famine, and fire. Rightly so, we are afraid.
What to do then? Once terror roots in our bones and we notice how our bodies have responded with sweat or headache or trembling, what is our choice? What engenders resilience? How do we free ourselves from its tyranny?
One has to take action, confirms Rilke. Nothing grows in states of fear. This we know.
Antidotes to fear abound in the psychological and medical literature: Connection to others soothes us and also inspires bravery. Wisdom from those who have traveled similar paths provides us light and clarity. Mindful awareness of the flow of emotions enables us to find a tiny bit of space between one moment of fear and another, eventually creating islands of calm within. Laughter ameliorates its sharp edges and forgiveness, generosity, and gratitude create positive neurochemical adjustments within the brain that make room for hope, optimism, and a sense of self-agency. In their presence, we can begin to feel, however slightly, a growing sense of competency in facing horror. There is much we can do. Each of these strategies rests first though on a simple foundation: We must first accept that we are afraid and offer ourselves a tender self-compassion for finding ourselves hidden under the covers, certain of the velociraptor under the bed.
When fear arises, the freeing action, the resilient action, the profoundly difficult action is neither to override nor deny fear, but to turn and face it directly, as one might turn to face a snarling slayer. We do so not to let the creature overcome us, but rather to see, to see clearly, that which might paralyze us. As we do, we can find that perception shifts. Facing fear, naming it out loud, stating where it lives in our body, what the paralysis really feels like, reduces some of its power. What had appeared as a predator suddenly, with our direct attention, becomes more like a messenger or guide.
Pema Chödrön writes of a childhood friend, terrorized by nightmares of monsters. She asked her friend what the monsters looked like, and the girl realized she didn’t know. Soon in her dreams she saw herself turning to face the demons in order to see them clearly and, as she did, they became approachable and even friendly. The nightmares became dreams, the monsters became companions.
With clear seeing, other knowings arise; perhaps the knowing that we have walked with this fear for a very long time or that, along with fear, we also possess tenacity, bravery, curiosity. Wonder may grow at how often we have been captivated by our fear. Courage, a defiant sense of “Damn it, I am not going to let this imprison me,” will show itself for some. And self-compassion may grow, a poignant humility for the ways in which we are simply human and vulnerable to the reality that we have control over so little. Our very smallness may remind us to be tender toward ourselves.
As we turn to face fear, our vision of the worst shifts and our heart calms. We can bring ourselves back to the present moment, where choice abounds, and let go of the terror of what might yet be or what has been, and attend to the moment that is. “Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future,” counsels Thich Nhat Han. “If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.”
In the presence of the present moment, fear can become one of the many experiences of living— not the predominant experience, not the one that need define our life.
This post is excerpted from A Short Course in Happiness After Loss (And Other Dark, Difficult Times), by Maria Sirois.
Dr. Maria Sirois is a master teacher, facilitator, and author. She is devoted to the science of well-being and the art of crafting a life and work that embodies health, passion, and success. As a positive psychologist (PsyD) and international consultant, she focuses on the resilience of the human spirit, particularly when under chronic stress, during significant transitions, and/or feeling the shock of wholesale change. Known for her wisdom, authenticity, and rampant humor, Maria brings a depth of experience in personal and leadership development for corporate and nonprofit professionals, as well as community members and those who serve in the health and wellness arenas. For those who seek personal transformation and an increase in meaning, happiness, and health, she brings a wealth of perspective and research from decades of study in the mind/body medicine and resilience disciplines. Her first entree into the territory of wellness was as a volunteer at the then-groundbreaking Benson-Henry Mind/Body Institute in Boston, where she learned to offer mindfulness practice and stress-reduction techniques to those suffering from chronic and acute pain. Her work today integrates this perspective with the tenets of wholeness found in positive psychology. With world thought leader Tal Ben-Shahar and WBI CEO and cofounder Megan McDonough, Maria co-leads a year-long certificate program for executives, educators, entrepreneurs, counselors, and the general public. In addition, Maria is the author of two books, A Short Course in Happiness After Loss (And Other Dark, Difficult Times) and Every Day Counts (Lessons in Love, Faith and Resilience from Children Facing Illness). For more about her work, visit mariasirois.com.