On being afraid, March 2020

Highgate Men’s Bathing Pond, February 2020. Photo by Justin Wise

The world is, for all of us, a very narrow bridge, that we did not choose to walk.
And the most important thing is not to amplify our fear.
NACHMAN OF BRATSLAV

I’ve written about fear before, but as we enter into a very uncertain March 2020 all around the world, it seems it’s time to write about it again. I’m still very much working all of this out. It’s not all easy, by any means, and I don’t have answers to most of the questions I have about how to be in the world right now. But here’s where I am.

I’m deeply grateful to Norman Fischer, whose talk on this subject inspired what follows. In many places below I’ve drawn directly from Norman’s words, especially in the quoted sections, which have been so helpful to me. I hope they will be for you too.

On Being Afraid

We were already afraid before this began to happen. Fear itself is already endemic in our culture.

It’s here already because it sells things. It’s here already because, by it, we keep ourselves in our habitual patterns of distraction and avoidance. But it comes at a huge cost. It has us undermine ourselves again and again. When we’re had by our fear, when we’re caught up in it and the certainty of it, we live at odds with ourselves. We pretend that what we’ve become so afraid of isn’t happening, even when it is. Or we become certain that our fear is the world and turn away from our own wisdom, feeling further and further from ourselves and from one another.

Of course, indulging our fear seems so sensible. You don’t have to read very far into the statistics of the coronavirus situation [more on this below] to see that a vast tragedy is unfolding around us, that isn’t likely to go away before it’s had its fierce way with us, however much we wish it wouldn’t happen… at least not now… at least not to us.

I know what it’s like to be gripped by my fear, to be feel unable to get any distance from it. When the house is quiet and dark, and my children are sleeping, and I imagine how the world might be over the coming weeks and afterwards – indeed even as I write these words – feeding my fear seems the obvious things to do. And when I wake in the morning – if I have even slept – a night of amplifying my fear leaves me shaken and depleted, exhausted and tiny, and convinced more than anything of my loneliness and separateness and smallness.

But I don’t think we need to be afraid all the time. I don’t think we should be afraid all the time. There’s another way to practice in the midst of things. A way that starts with us admitting to our fear and confusion rather than denying it or being caught up in it. A way that isn’t distracting ourselves from the gravity of our situation, nor taking our fear so seriously that we exhaust ourselves and find ourselves in a despair that we can’t get out of. Neither of those extremes is going to help us.

Instead, we can begin by letting ourselves actually feel our fear for a while – properly making contact with it – even if it’s the last thing we want to do. We might have to stop rushing around if we want to make this possible. And in the quiet, truthful space in which we let ourselves feel our fear most fully, and in we feel our grief at how far the world is right now from how we want it to be, we can start to say:

I see you.
But I am not you.
You feel like the future, but you’re not actually the future.
You’re an experience, that I am having in my body, right now.

This way we neither run from our fear, nor indulge it. We take up the practice of speaking with ourselves in new ways – in the ways a wise, kind and truthful friend would do. However strong our fear, however convincing, this clear-seeing part of us is also here if we look for it.

And it helps greatly to be able to speak from this part, to say to ourselves:

Yes, I am anxious.
Yes, I am fearful.
And right now, I feel completely desolate.
And that is, indeed the truth.

and

I know that I will feel this way for a while. But it will last only a certain amount of time. It will not slow the spread of disease. It will not help my loved ones. It will not help me take good care of myself or other people. It will not improve anything at all about the situation.

and

In fact, if I keep on with this feeling longer than is absolutely necessary it will make things worse. The feeling of desolation is natural. I do not need to disrespect myself for feeling it. But it is extra.

And then, gradually, some space… and some contact with our willingness to meet life – fiercely, lovingly – just as it is. We start to be less convinced by the trance that fear has had us in, and remember that we can be of service. We remember that to be a human is to be a blessing.

But I cannot be this if I keep indulging my fear.

So I am just going to have to stop.
And then turn back towards the world.

And when the future comes, with everything that it brings, it isn’t even the future. It always turns out to be the present when it happens, and we often discover that we can, indeed, meet it – however difficult or painful it is – in ways we did not imagine.

Background reading on COVID-19
I have spent a lot of time reading, seeing if could find a way through the voluminous news reporting, sound bites, political promises, and data, to find sources I trust which will help me understand what’s going on and where it might lead us.

Here’s what I’ve found, and what I’ve understood.
I hope it will be of help.

  1. Seth Godin on the statistics, how viruses spread, what it means for what’s likely to happen, and how we might relate to it
  2. Bill Gates, who has been thinking about this for a long time, on the same
  3. A very clear New York Times article, referenced by Seth, that explains why, at the stage we’re at with this virus (3rd March 2020) things can look very normal now but change very quickly
  4. Bruce Aylward from the WHO, on how rapid spread can yet be averted, if countries take appropriate action
  5. Statistics, updated frequently, from Worldometer, that show what’s happening

Fear and Practice

I’m coming to see that of the three primary fear responses available to human bodies (fight, flight, and freeze), it’s freeze that’s the most habitual for me. Like many people who share a similar personality structure to me, the presence of fear or despair in the world is easily an opportunity to tune out, to dissociate, and to disappear in the midst of life. And this week, with ongoing news about the state of the earth’s climate, with the attacks in Sri Lanka, and with the ongoing presence of an energetic xenophobia in our politics, there has been ample fuel for the kind of asleep-in-the-midst-of-things that it is so easy for me to fall into.

All of this is one reason why I’m grateful for the increasing role of practice in my life. As I’ve written before, when I remember to live a life of practice – swimming, writing, contribution to community, meditation, Jewish practices, walking, music, intentional conversation – I feel more spaciousness in my heart, a renewed sense of aliveness in my body, and my mind is quieter too. I’m less convinced by stories about who I should be and what I’m supposed to be doing. Without practice it is easy for me to be swept up in my habits of absence, as if hurled by a swelling tide until I no longer remember that I’m swept up in anything and life becomes an invisible whirling torrent of fear and falling short and things to do and places to be. It should be of little surprise to me (though it often is) that in the midst of all that my body has tightened up, my heart more rigid, my mind filled with barely visible oughts and shoulds, judgements and obligations and disappointments.

It’s practice that allows me to rehearse, repeatedly, a relationship with the world that’s full of life, and full of expression, full of connection to others, and full of welcome for all of it – even the greatest difficulties. And this, I’m starting to see more clearly, is the very point of practice – that over time, done again and again, it allows us to experience life as if parts of ourselves that are more often marginalised, abandoned or simply forgotten have come home again.

I’m particularly grateful today for the poem Thanks by W S Merwin, which points to the restorative possibilities of giving thanks, practicing gratitude, right in the middle of the darkness. It’s what I’ve needed these past weeks, and the conversation that Lizzie and I had as part of this week’s Episode 82 of Turning Towards Life (another restorative practice for me) explores it in depth.

And, if you missed them, we’ve also talked in the past couple of weeks about the moment-to-moment choices between possibility and fear (in Episode 81, Two Paths), and about the problems being too certain about things can bring us (in Episode 80, The Place Where We Are Right).

You can catch up with all the conversations in that project over at turningtowards.life, and you can also find all our conversations on YouTube, and as a podcast on AppleGoogle and Spotify

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

Because I was scared

In the latest episode of ‘Turning Towards Life’ Lizzie and I talk about being afraid – how it paralyses us and turns us away from ourselves and others, and what comes from owning up to being scared and knowing others as afraid also. The source is a beautifully written and powerful piece from our friend Joy Reichart’s Blog Beginnerdom, and is called “Because I was Scared“.

We’re live every Sunday morning at 9am UK time. You can visit the turningtowards.life website to join our members-only facebook group and watch live, view archives, and join in the growing community and conversation that’s happening around this project.

Humanities

It’s not just that fear is easy, that it makes us feel important, and that it sells.

When it’s unaddressed it also turns us away from our humanity.

When our society turns to fear as the background mood, the humanities themselves come under such assault. We’re turning away from the study of literature and poetry, art and philosophy, music, language and culture as ends in themselves. When we’re afraid and in denial about our fear, as so many of us are, we want just that which will demonstrably help us go faster, complete more, make the money, hit the targets, beat the competition, keep out the outsider, make us feel safe.

The humanities do none of those, at least not in obvious ways. They won’t settle, or soothe, or rush us into action. They’ll take their time. They’ll trouble us, stir us, have us ask bigger and deeper questions than we’re asking. They’ll open the horizon and the wide sky, connecting us with the wisdom and humanity of those who have come before (who may have a thing or two to teach us about our current circumstances), making us feel our vulnerability and possibility, opening us to others, inspiring us, and reminding us what a store of depth and capacity we human beings have to respond to life. This is the very depth and capacity which, as Marilynne Robinson writes in her latest book, might well be ‘the most wonderful thing in the world, very probably the most wonderful thing in the universe’.

When we turn away from the humanities as a serious path, and allow ourselves to be possessed by our fear, we reduce ourselves in profound ways. And, when our democracies and our organisations turn this way, we lose the very thing that makes both democracy and organising together work: our trust in the capacity and dignity of the other human beings with whom we share the places in which we live.

The humanities teach us how vital, how possible, it is to live and work with other people even when we disagree – and how much we must be prepared to learn from others, both those living now and those long gone, if the world is to be bigger, and better, than that tiny and narrowing patch of land we each defend at all costs simply because it’s the only remaining patch of land on which we don’t feel afraid.

Fear is easy

Fear is easy.

Really easy.

It spreads, like wildfire – my fear becoming your fear becoming their fear becoming my fear again.

It makes us feel special – if I’m so afraid, there must be important things to do, like saving myself or saving the company or saving the country. At last, because of fear, I have a role to play.

It makes things look simple – there is no choice here, no nuance, no time to talk together or think together about what’s really called for, or if we’re doing the right thing, or what the consequences over time might be. There is just action, this action, my action, and now.

It helps us look right – how dare you suggest another way, a different way? Can’t you see what’s at stake here? How risky this is? How much we have to lose?

It saves us from having to listen to one another – if you’re not with me you’re against me, and if you’re against me you must be wrong, and it’s because you’re wrong and all of those others of you who are wrong that we’re in this terrifying mess in the first place.

It saves us from having to think – that there might be another way to see this, that your point of view might have merit, or integrity, or something to offer.

It saves us from shame – at the ways I’m hurting you, or hurting myself, or hurting those who will come after us.

It sells – the idea that I’m the best, that my way is the right way, that we’re the chosen ones, that they’re out to get us, that you have to work harder, that you must never stop, that our values are under threat, that we have to do this vital but terrible thing, that after all it’s only business or politics or necessity.

It allows us to justify – these punishing targets, our culture of hyper-activity, my monitoring of your every move, the hours I expect you to work, our obsession with measurement and deliverables, my not listening, our race to the lowest common denominator, your being available at every moment, our treating others as objects.

Of course, fear works best when it doesn’t display itself as fear. It’s at its most potent when dressed up as civility, and best practice, and just-doing-business, and competency frameworks, and HR policy, and micro-management, and ‘smart’ goals, and this-is-work-not-a-playground-don’t-you-know.

Fear is easy, and fear is cheap, but it’s dignity that sets the human spirit free to contribute, and create, and address our difficulties, and listen, and change things, and improve our situation. And dignity takes work, and courage, and honesty, and sincerity, and integrity, and wisdom and compassion and humility and love.

Yes, love. Not a much-respected word in many organisations or in politics, and easily dismissed by the easy politics and business of fear. But it is indeed love that reminds us how brilliant human beings can be, how capable, how varied, how much there is to marvel at in our situation and our capacity, and how much we need all of this right now, just as we always have done.

Photo Credit: hardaker Flickr via Compfight cc

Busyness and fear

Three basic human fears about what we do:

That what we’re doing doesn’t matter. That, quite probably, it’s meaningless.

That what we’re doing doesn’t help. That it doesn’t make a contribution to anyone.

That when we’re gone, all our efforts will amount to nothing.

Notice how it’s our busyness that has such amazing capacity to distract us from our fears, to numb us to them. And that it’s our busyness, precisely because it distracts us so well, that has such capacity to make our fears turn out to be true.

Photo Credit: michelle.boesch via Compfight cc

Fear or care?

What do you imagine brings forth our most generous creativity, commitment and attentiveness? Would you say fear, or care?

And, yet, we seem determined to construct our companies, and our schools, around making people afraid.

It may not look this way. We cover it up with a veneer of respectability, process, and ‘best practice’. But, still, we try to bring about so much of what needs to happen by generating fear – about the future, about prospects, about promotion, about opportunity.

Perhaps we do this because we have not yet become skilful enough at working with, or being present to, our own fear. Because we’re had by our fear, we imagine we’ll bring about something that lasts by stirring it in others.

But while fear can be a powerful force for immediate action, it quickly leaves us resourceless, frozen, diminished and disconnected both from others and from the source of our own creativity and aliveness.

Could we instead take the bold move of cultivating and welcoming the care that is equally inherent in being human?

Photo Credit: Chiara Cremaschi via Compfight cc

Running from fear

We’re afraid. Most of us, more than we’ll let on.

We’re afraid that our lives will be meaningless. We’re afraid of our aloneness. We’re afraid of our ending.

And, mostly, we’re afraid of our fear. We’re sure it means there’s something wrong with us. We each think we’re the only one who feels this way.

So we hide how afraid we are, even from ourselves, distracting and numbing and enchanting ourselves with diversions and addictions and rushing and busyness that have our life pass in a blur, leaving us feeling shallow and out of touch with ourselves.

We wonder how everyone else seems to have it so sorted (without realising that they are afraid, and hiding it, too).

And we’ve forgotten (because we seem to have wilfully abandoned so much wisdom we could have been taught by those who came before us) that fear avoided and denied goes underground, holding us ever more tightly in its invisible grip. And that running from fear is really running from life.

Photo Credit: matt.forestpath (flash200) via Compfight cc