Outgrowing Fear

Outgrowing Fear

Is it too late to make a New Year’s Resolution? Okay, how about just an Anytime Resolution (the better kind, in my experience, since they lack all that silly pressure and arbitrariness)? Mine isn’t something quantifiable, or even nutrition or health-based (I’m all set on that, with my no-more-running vows). Ironically, that lack of measurability perfectly mimics the resolution itself: to turn toward fear, not away from it, and embrace it for all its inherent uncertainties. 

Like many aspects of human nature, fear is a hard-wired, evolutionary necessity that has been bastardized by societies for ages because of social mores and policies. In the Bible, there are countless verses that instruct mankind to banish fear through faith in God’s everlasting support: the book of Deuterotomy tells us, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” Likewise, we have some of the greatest historical figures reminding us, whether it be in a book, another person’s quoted speech, or a Pinterest quote-graphic, that fear is something that can, and should, be vanquished like an enemy as a means to an end: FDR’s only fear was fear itself, and Nelson Mandela admitted that “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” While these words are indubitably inspiring, they are equally frustrating because of the abstract prescriptions they offer. As alternatives to an instinctual impulse that manifests itself in psychological and physical realities, we have: a metaphysical, omnipotent ruler; a syntactic reversal/negation; and a near-allegorical being. There’s nothing here about how to get to this place of fearlessness, or why any particular thing is happening to us the bring fear about in the first place. 

A common thread in all these faux-examples of what to do in the face of fear is their uncertainty. What makes them unsatisfying on a practical level, when we’re looking square in the face a fearful medical diagnosis, decision, or response from another person whose will is out of our control, is that we can’t be sure the thing that will ostensibly save us will be there when we need it—i.e., now. Will God be at my side when my plane experiences prolonged turbulence, or is He off with someone else who got to His attention first? (Faith says yes, always yes, but faith is just as hard as letting go of fear.) If I’m supposed to be carry my fears with me in order to overcome them, how do I know they won’t become bigger than me, or just too heavy to hold up in the fight?

The biggest and most finite example of this relationship between fear and uncertainty can be found in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, as the final of the five kleshas, or obstacles to our inner peace and utmost presentness: abhinivesa, or the fear of death. Abhinivesa can be interpreted literally—our desire to stay alive and preserve our physical body is what’s ensured the fate of all life–but also extends metaphorically to nearly every fearful situation. You might be afraid of making a big life change, such as moving to another country, because it means the death of a former life in the place you live now. You’re afraid of making a presentation or speech because if it goes poorly, it might mean the death of the idea or cause you were putting forward. We desperately want to hold onto the things we know for certain and can prove exists, whereas opening ourselves up to something we don’t know to be true can result in any number of scenarios with a long chain of follow-through the endpoint of which is also unknown: we can be joyfully surprised or surprisingly disappointed by what’s out there. 

As a generally cautious person, I’ve built around myself a very thick layer of fear armor that’s kept me on a straight and narrow path for a long, long time. There’s nothing wrong with this path per se—the view is nice, and it’s been paved by passionate yet rational decisions all the while. But there comes a point when the armor gets a bit too heavy to hold up, too rusted and laborious to maintain. It’d be easier to take it off for many reasons, but also a lot harder to be certain of my survival without it.

 Hester Prynne lettering her hair down, The Scarlet Letter

What’s motivating me to move not beyond or above fear—a notion that’s inherently an endpoint—but through fear is longing for the space to grow. Without my armor, I can take up the space I need to find my true way, to push through and make a new path through a once-unknown terrain. A consolation, too, is the fact that working through something challenging and scary will only be painful until you build up another kind of armor, one that’s experienced-based instead of vague and all-encompassing. Any ballet dancer can tell you that the initial pain of starting pointe work is a time of intense fear: fear of falling, fear of what bloody and broken mess you’ll find when you take your shoes off, fear of having to accept that maybe your ankles are just too weak or toes just too long for this to work at all. But as you releve and bourree over and over, you eventually find that you’ve grown yourself a nice, protective callous that makes your artistic growth possible. You’re literally taller en pointe—a different kind of presence that’s light, agile, and beautiful. This “year,” then, I’m making the fearful step of choosing honesty and growth over fear-laden certainty. It’s going to hurt, but what hurts more is not knowing what else there is to know, to feel, to be.

Midway upon the journey of our life

I found myself within a forest dark,

For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say

What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,

Which in the very thought renews the fear.

So bitter is it, death is little more;

But of the good to treat, which there I found,

Speak will I of the other things I saw there.

—Dante’s Inferno

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