It’s been many years since I read the classic book by Susan Jeffers, ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’. Over a decade. But in all that time I have tried to remember to face my fears and so move life on rather than getting stuck in an all-too-comfortable rut.
Fear is a basic human emotion, one which underlies so many of our other feelings. It is also a physiological response to dangers, which may be both very real and also can be imagined and magnified out of all proportion. When we are presented with a very real danger, then our bodies initiate the ‘fight or flight’ response, conditioning us to deal with the danger by fighting or running away. We experience familiar symptoms including sweaty palms, a pounding heart, accelerated breathing. Our muscles get ready to take action. Our digestion slows down as blood and energy is diverted to our vital organs. A very useful response if we actually need to run away or fight an enemy. But if we are stuck in traffic and worried about being late, or worried about a situation which we cannot actually influence in any material way, then these same responses can be counterproductive, leading to all the many symptoms of fear in the chronic, persistent condition of stress.
So fear can be helpful, or unhelpful, depending on what is inducing the fear. But fear never diminishes unless we face it head on, and really look at it. We can then try to decide if the fear is helpful, if it’s rational and serves a purpose. Or if our minds have blown the actual danger out of all proportion.
There is a story Pema Chodron tells in “When Things Fall Apart” about a man whose meditation teacher sent him to meditate overnight in a tiny hut. He thought he saw a venomous snake in the hut with him, and once his candles had burnt out he spent the night in terror. He – and we – will never know whether the snake was real or imaginary. All we know is that it was not there when the dawn came. When the cave was illuminated, and the man saw there was no snake, the fear was gone. But the night he had spent had given him a much deeper knowledge of himself.
We may like to run away from our fears, and pretend we are brave whilst staying firmly in our comfort zone. We can cement our aversions around ourselves like a fortress against having to really look at those fears. We can prevent ourselves ever having to experience the sensations of fear.
Or we can try to stretch ourselves, to knock down the fortress of our fears, and face our challenges head on. We might be terrified the first time we do something, but we may come to know ourselves more truly by ‘doing it anyway’. We may discover qualities and gifts we would never have known we had, and grow into more rounded individuals. As Pema Chodron writes in “The Places That Scare You”:
“Openness doesn’t come from resisting our fears but from getting to know them well”
Of course, fear can also be a healthy response to real dangers. It may be sensible not to do something which is well beyond our current capabilities, but to learn more slowly. We all have our intuition which can help us if we tune into it. We can spend a lifetime discovering the difference between the fears that protect us, and those that hold us back. And then we can keep pushing our boundaries just a little bit each day, so that we can look back at our lives and see just how far we have come.