Facing Your Fear of Life

A young man ends his life because he cannot face the fears that confront him. And a mother survives to anguish over the question, “What could I have done?”

How does one teach another about fear? Can we ever be fully prepared to deal with it before we encounter it? Probably not. If we could, there would be no fear.

Someone once noted that experience is the cruelest instructor: it gives the test before it teaches the lesson. Maybe we don't realize our need for courage until we find ourselves scared. It certainly does take courage to live. This seems to be one of life's clearest messages. To those who do not learn this lesson, life seems incomprehensible and overwhelming. Everyone needs courage in order to face life.

Anyone who can recognize fear will realize they have experienced it. Fear is a universal experience. It can be denied, but it cannot be avoided.

Freedom and consciousness create a certain amount of anxiety. In other words, life produces fear. Most journeys have dragons. A wonderful Zen expression reminds us, “The obstacle is part of the path.” The dangers we face produce the lessons we learn.

In spite of the obstacles, we may need to continue on the path. When we walk through a fear, we walk to courage. So we must deal with the trolls before we move on. We develop courage by experiencing fear to the full.

If that young man could have held on in spite of his Fear, he may have found courage. It seems he did not understand this. Unfortunately, a parent cannot simply hand this lesson to a child. Life teaches.

No travel agents

In the journey of life there are no travel agents. You don't know for sure what you'll find until you get “there.” In spite of the uncertainty, we seem designed to keep moving and growing, heading in some direction beyond the present.

We are explorers and discoverers by nature. Nothing can change this. We can deny our curiosities and pretend not to feel the push into the new. In so doing, however, we lose touch with ourselves. We lose our life force when we deny the gift of curiosity.

It has been said that, “It's better to be safe than sorry,” and, for better or for worse, this has become a respected slogan for guiding behavior. Now I don't know who coined this phrase, but I'm willing to bet we have taken it out of context.

I won't argue that people prefer safety to sorrow - I certainly do. But is it always better to be safe than daring? Is it always preferable to be secure than to be vibrant and enthusiastic? Safety does not completely protect us from sorrow. And safety (in the short run) can lead to sorrow (in the long run). We ultimately miss the things we protect ourselves from.

The interesting fact is that we probably fear more things from our imaginations than things rooted in reality. When asked to identify their greatest fear, one of the most common responses among adults is the fear of public speaking. Its remarkable that even people who never do public speaking will list this as their greatest fear.

When asked why they fear speaking before a crowd. adults say some curious things. “I'm afraid I'll go completely blank and look like a fool.“ “Because all the people might walk out on me.” “I'm afraid that everyone in the audience will know more than me about the topic I'm discussing.” “I'll have a complete and total mental breakdown in front of all those people.” “It scares me that I could be up there exposing myself in front of the world and then feel rejected and humiliated.”

Even if we have not lived the worst, we can imagine the worst. And even if we've never seen anyone live out our nightmares, we can still imagine them coming true.

If we look closely, a certain irony emerges. The fear of public speaking may produce some of the best public speakers.

Psychologists have known for years that a certain amount of anxiety contributes to creativity and performance. Beyond this, it seems that the fear also prevents one from taking an audience for granted (the worst of all offenses). An anxious performer may become the most prepared performer.

The fear leads to a high quality performance relates to the fact that people revel in the conquest of fright. Remember, when you walk through a fear, you walk to courage. Speakers who survive the dread and find themselves at the podium can find terror turning to ecstasy. The “rush” then begins and wonderful performances unfold.

No, there are no travel agents for life's journey and this can be scary. Still, at each successive destination, we find the energy and the ecstasy to continue.

Maps to courage

We all have our own maps to courage. The maps need updating as we age and find new sources of gumption. The more acquainted we are with our maps, the less we actually need them. Even so, it's important we not lose our directions; we're only human and humans forget things. We can forget how to find courage.

Most maps to courage are mental maps. Rarely discussed, we keep them safely and silently within. While all goes well, these directions seem to remain in the unconscious. Consequently, as long as we have the courage to live our values, we may not even be aware that such maps exist. When a crisis arises, however, and the map cannot be found, the conscious mind clamors for the map. In other words, when you face a situation that requires more courage than seems available to you, your conscious mind insists that your unconscious either find or update your map to courage.

Crises like this can be very distressing. You face a condition without the courage to deal with it. Your mind then starts digging for your map, a map you may never before realized even existed. And once you find the directions, they may only give you a portion of the information you need. They may only tell you where you found courage in the past. Your new crisis may require a new source of courage.

For example, let's consider the crisis of serious illness. Suddenly the patient learns that life may not last as long as he had hoped, that maybe he could die soon. This situation presents the need for great courage, perhaps more than the individual has ever known. From where does this courage come? Perhaps the disease itself.

Facing mortality can clarify our priorities. When we find out what is important, we also find courage.

We need our maps to help us meet novelty as well as catastrophe. It may take a shot of nerve to sing out loud in your car while stuck in traffic. Or to visit the grave of a deceased loved one. Or to show up for your physical exam. Whenever and wherever you find courage, make a mental note. Keep updating your map. Add color and texture without spoiling its simplicity. And never go anywhere without it.


If I had more courage, I would…

I have a friend who has (what she calls) a “courage hat.” She wears this peculiar multi-colored, description-defying chapeau whenever she needs “more guts,” and she insists that it works. My friend is a nurse. A spiritual person, she also finds courage through prayer, the support of friends, and through her relationships with her patients. Maybe each source produces a different type of courage. Still, it seems courage can be found in such diverse places as a hat, humanity and the heavens.

To understand what increased courage might do for you, try the following exercise.

Below is an incomplete sentence. Finish the sentence as many ways as you can. You might do a better job with it while in a safe, comfortable place. This little procedure may generate some anxiety. In fact, many people have a difficult time developing responses, especially at first. So stick with it for a bit and see what you can learn.

Again complete the following sentence in as many ways as you can.

“If I had more courage, I would….” Now, what will you do with what you have learned?

The Evil Mary Powers

“Mary Powers, Mary Powers. Show yourself, Mary Powers,” chanted the terrified child.

A few seconds pass. Then the visage begins to appear on the mirror in the darkened room. “Ahhhhh!” screams the horrified youngster as he darts for the door.

Sound familiar? “The Evil Mary Powers” lives in most neighborhoods. Although kids call her different names in different regions, the procedure is the same. First comes the séance or the ghost stories to get everyone in the mood. Then, when anxiety soars to a peak, comes the ultimate dare. Who has the guts to call upon the evil Mary Powers? Usually the child with the greatest need to impress (or the one sensible enough to understand how the whole thing works) rises to the occasion. He goes alone into a dark room and stands in front of a mirror for thirty seconds or so. As the seconds tick by (and the eyes adjust to the dark) a face forms in the looking glass. To the child who doesn't understand that he is seeing his own reflection, this turns into an awful experience. What else could it be, he reasons, but the real wicked Mary Powers?

Like other children's games, “The Evil Mary Powers” offers a caricature of the human condition. As we age, we come to realize that few things create more fear, anxiety and angst than an honest look at ourselves.

Exploration can lead to evidence that contradicts our most comforting beliefs.

People have reason to approach the unknown cautiously. We could run into monsters, nightmares and things too scary to imagine. Wise folks stroll carefully into uncharted territories. But why venture forth at all? If exploration produces anxiety, why bother? Because if we handle the fear, we may find the treasure. If we face the breakdown, we may achieve a breakthrough. If we stick around long enough to introduce ourselves to wicked Mary Powers, we may master some fear and learn about life.

The fear of messing up

Hiding from misfortune meant losing part of one's life. In our efforts to protect ourselves from failure we can miss much of what the universe has to offer.

The child who approaches a project carefully but with determination, this is the kid who will be successful. Most important is how he or she handles failure. The child who reaches an impasse and then stops and thinks and then tries something new, this is the one who will accomplish the most. He or she meets a problem or a mistake, thinks about it, then moves to correct it. A child's behavior will tell you so much more.

How individuals, be they children or adults, deal with mistakes certainly tells you something about their characters. We all like to think that we will face our defeats and then learn from these experiences. Unfortunately, however, we have a tendency to confuse failure with a terminal illness. Failure can seem irreversible, as if once we enter its grasp we sink into a netherworld of fellow losers. The myth and the reality, though, are worlds apart. As those sixth grade future successes teach us failure can lead to strength and knowledge.

We don't have to convince ourselves that we enjoy failure (even though mistakes often provide great humor). But in order to live life to the fullest, we probably have to assure ourselves that we can survive - and even laugh about and learn from - setbacks. Even grownups sometimes fall down when they walk. It's a frightening world if you think mishaps can destroy you.

The healthiest among us dare to make mistakes. They acknowledge their miscues, sometimes play with them and, ultimately, learn from them. Failure does not have to lead to defeat. Failure leads to shame only if we believe it does.

The fear of messing up may be more common than we like to believe. The “paralyzed perfectionist” may appear lazy apathetic and even bored. On the inside, however, there dwells a great deal of fear. He fears that if he tries anything he could fail and that he could not possibly live with the subsequent shame. So to protect himself from the imagined calamity, he presents an image of indifference. He then rationalizes this by persuading himself, “If I do not try, I cannot fail.” And so he lives safe, secure and stagnating.

Not all perfectionists retreat so completely. Many exhaust themselves trying to acquire a flawless appearance. Although their ambitions may be noble, problems arise because they believe they are incapable of living with imperfections even though imperfection is inevitable.

Sometimes courage can be frightening. More precisely, because it frequently originates in unusual places, we can be afraid to touch a source of strength.

Some people are afraid to pray. Others are too squeamish to talk out loud to themselves in an encouraging way. The point: the road to courage can be frightening. We might like to think we are above it, but at certain times in our lives we may all need other sources of strength.


One dimension of wisdom must be the ability to tolerate confusion. Without this patience, we would rush to premature conclusions or avoid critical issues altogether.

Life has many mysteries. Those of us fortunate enough to love mysteries soon realize we love life. Confusion can be exciting and/or unsettling; it depends on how you look at it. If, however, you shake in the presence of a good dilemma, you need to consider a few things.

Confusion represents another one of those trolls. It makes you stop and consider changing paths. It leaves you unsure and may demand ideas, feelings and behaviors previously foreign to you. Like other obstacles, confusion need not necessarily be destroyed or conquered. Instead it must be respected, perhaps befriended.

Confusion often precedes learning. I once saw a poster on an office door that read: “To wonder is to begin to understand.” Confusion provides a certain motivation to explore. Sometimes this exploration leads to answers, other times not. When no resolution appears, confusion presses us to create our own. Thus creativity owes a debt of gratitude to uncertainty. We could also say that to wonder is to begin to create. Confusion testifies to our freedom. It can teach. It can motivate. It can also humble us. Humility keeps us from thinking we have all the answers. As long as we have humility we will always have things to wonder about. Then we can spend our lives learning and creating.


Fear of success

Mental health professionals have identified hundreds of fears, from arachibutyrophobia (the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of one's mouth) to euphobia (the fear of good news) to philosophobia (the fear of philosophy or philosophers). It seems that if you can name it, there is somebody somewhere who's afraid of it.

Not only do people fear negative experiences such as failure, death, car accidents and surgery, but many of us come to dread life's rewards. The phrase “fear of success” or FOS is described as a fairly common condition that surfaces when the afflicted arrives at the verge of success. At this point, someone with high FOS will sabotage their impending victory.

A more common example of the fear of success would be the individual who wants to lose a specific amount of weight. He diets successfully until he almost reaches his target then. suddenly, he inexplicably regains all those lost pounds.

People with high FOS frequently excel while contenders but never make it to champions. Something always comes along to rob them of their triumph. While we all have lost a few big games, people with a significant fear of success will make this a fairly consistent pattern. They maintain a high level of performance until they approach what they perceive to be success. Then be it through accident, illness or whatever, the victory eludes them.

This fear is rooted in any of a number of irrational beliefs. That is, we all carry with us a collection of beliefs about ourselves and others, as well as about life in general. Ideally, these beliefs are rational and serve to help us become happy, useful and well adjusted. In order to develop and maintain a rational set of beliefs, we must be willing to consider these assumptions from time to time and adjust them when needed. For instance, it is appropriate for a young child to believe she needs an adult to help her cross the street. It would be irrational, however, for most adults to believe this.

Many people who live with a fear of success carry irrational beliefs with them. Early in life - due to discouraging conditions - we may conclude that “I will never amount to anything important.” or “Success just never comes to people like me,” or “If I become successful at something, people will expect me to always be successful and I'll end up looking like a real failure.” Once someone develops a mindset that says, “I can never be successful,” they can then repeatedly prove themselves right. This irrational thinking can be difficult to break.

But break it we must. We can, and should, challenge our beliefs. This doesn't necessarily mean change them. Certain beliefs (i.e., the rational ones) must survive. Erroneous notions, however, need erasing. Some of these irrational ideas may have been accurate at an earlier period in our lives. But time can alter reality and failures can become successes. Even folks caught in the “I never win anything” syndrome can have their day.

To people who view themselves as unsuccessful, success represents the uncharted territory mentioned earlier. If I’ve never been there, I might not know how to act when I get there. Do I risk it? Or do. I stay with the familiar? The same holds true for happiness. People who have not known happiness can have a difficult time accepting the fact that they can find and enter serenity. In other words, people can be afraid of happiness. In order for an unhappy person to become contented, she must ask herself, “Dare I become something I've never been before?”

If we could measure the fear in children as they approach Disneyland for the first time, we would find that their anxiety mounts. What appears to be excitement may, in fact, be a fear of experiencing something wonderful yet totally new and unique. By the same token, if we were suddenly given the opportunity to look into heaven, many of us would probably get the jitters while waiting for the pearly gates to open.

On the road to contentment, we walk through fear. Success, in its many forms, represents the conquest of fear.

No escape from fear

No one avoids fear altogether. Young parents worry about how they will afford their children's college tuition. Then, once the kids have their degrees, mom and dad worry they will marry the wrong people.

During our working years we fret about being audited by the Internal Revenue Service. Then, as we approach retirement, we nervously wonder about the stability of the Social Security system.

A phone that rings in the middle of the night produces anxiety in just about everyone. We tend to fear that the alarm clock won't sound on the morning of the big meeting. No matter how secure we become, we never really lose the anguish that comes with taking off a band-aid. And doesn't it seem that adults are nervous about walking round without shoes?

Fear is as natural as the hiccups. Sometimes - when it comes in small doses - we only need to grin and bear it. It's a lesson older than the Three Stooges. Fear can be funny. If we let it. “It is not the critic who counts,” Gandhi claimed. “nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat; who strives valiantly; who errs and may fail again because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who does know the great enthusiasm, the great devotion; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best. knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

We can dare to feel “the great enthusiasm” and dare to know “the great devotion.” To do so we must touch the force that inspires us to reach as high as the human spirit can soar. We may each touch the force in a different way. It makes itself available to us as we travel our own paths. The force comes to us through our callings.


Resume our search for courage

It’s time to move on. We have stopped for a moment to consider fear; now we must refocus our attention on finding courage. Clearly, we will not remove fear from our lives, nor would we want to. Fear serves to protect, educate and motivate us. We would be lost without it.

Yes, it's time to move on. We need to resume our search for courage. We should not be surprised or discouraged when fear again arises. We have found it to be a friend, a teacher, an opponent, a clown or an illusion. We deal with fear as it presents itself - by respecting it, learning from it. conquering it, laughing with it, or seeing through it. Above all, we must never let fear keep us from finding the great enthusiasm for life.

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