What Creates Fear?
One morning I turned on CNN and saw that the terror alert had been elevated to orange. I’m not sure how bad orange is, but I know it’s not good. I stopped in my tracks, looked around my kitchen, and saw a stack of untried recipes, pictures from our recent trip to Colorado, and a shopping list written in my husband’s hand. Suddenly all these seemed very precious, and for a moment I allowed myself to imagine the magnitude of our loss if a terrorist attacked Boston. Our lives could end. Our house could be destroyed. Our lifestyle and our sense of refuge could be wiped out. It would be unbearable. It could happen! It happens to others every day. I thought about trying to escape by moving to a small town in British Columbia or Tuscany. I wanted to run away. My imagined loss was so excruciating that I knew I would do almost anything to prevent it. But I couldn’t tolerate the feeling of horror for more than a few seconds, so I put it all aside and went upstairs to take a shower.
In the post-9/11 world, flashes of fear like this are commonplace—as is the possibility of becoming hysterical, numb, or self-righteous. The need to discover and cultivate fearlessness is at an all-time high. Back in the mid-nineties, it seemed we were scared of overwork, credit card balances, and the prevalence of divorce. We may still worry about these things, but now the mix is much, much more intense. It includes fear of terrorism and global warfare; of the irreversible loss of natural resources, such as breathable air, drinkable water, and plentiful oil; and although it was unthinkable as little as ten years ago, of the displacement of America as the world’s unimpeachable superpower and the security that comes with that role. Just when we think life can’t become more stressful, a strange new disease is identified or the price of gasoline rises.
Once I worked at a small company that was being sold to avoid going under. Most of us had worked there since the beginning and had done so with respect and, frequently, joy—until our jobs were threatened. Our collegiality fell away, and we all began to fight for territory, flatter the boss, and blame one another for problems. Our office was awash in what appeared to be unresolved parental issues and desperate attempts to secure a strategic position to survive the transition. It is surprising how quickly fear can destabilize and poison good relationships. If the fear of losing a job can turn you into a coward, what can be expected from those who may lose a child to war or be denied permission to practice their faith?
Yet it doesn’t take remarkable events to create fear. Fear escalates in times of discomfort, no matter how remarkable or ordinary. When we think we might be in love, we hold our feelings back until circumstances are just right. When we want to pitch our co-workers a new idea, we worry about the consequences, decide against taking a risk, and hope for a better day. If we hear that a friend is ill, we long for things to go back to the way they were. These responses are completely and utterly understandable; we retreat from love, shrink from creativity, and hide from loss. It seems so much easier to hold to the familiar or cling to old beliefs about yourself and the way life is “supposed” to go. The question is: How do we prevent our fear from sucking us deeper into dogmatism, depression, and hatred, or their relatives, superiority, laziness, and numbness? The answer is to find a response that balances our emotions through relating to what scares us, not through turning away from it.
Before we can craft a response, we should explore what we’re up against. There are three arenas within which we encounter our own fear: about ourselves; about others; and about life, or the way we approach the world in general.
Fear of Self
The list of reasons to fear yourself may be quite long. Maybe you fear that you’re some kind of phony. Perhaps you fear that you can’t handle the difficulties and responsibilities of life. Deep down, we all fear that who we are is simply not good enough. If our bosses knew how inadequate we really were, they would fire us. Lovers would break up with us. Our parents or children would reject us. Self-doubt can become so twisted and uncomfortable that we will do almost anything to avoid examining these fears about ourselves. Tension between the real self and self-image causes frustration to build and build.
Fear of Others
Finally, when the frustration level rises beyond a tolerable point, we start to look around for someone to blame for our unpleasant situation or personal discomfort. (My friend Greg says his family’s problem-solving methodology involves three steps: 1. Define problem. 2. Assign blame. 3. Problem solved.) You can build a case against others’ failings, but no matter how convincing it may be and how many complex initiatives you mount in the name of problem solving, it won’t alleviate your pain. However, with the alternative—not blaming anyone or anything—we might be left with no explanation for our predicament, which is the hardest state of all to tolerate. How would we manage our problems if there is no one at fault: no mother or father to impugn for deficient or excessive attention; no personal attributes (laziness, stupidity, bad luck, psychological defects of all kinds) to hold accountable for our woes; no shortcomings in our political or social structures to bear responsibility?
It’s easier to feel cranky about how no-account the others in our lives are than to question why we hang out with them in the first place or what our role is in the current difficulty. Colleagues are stupid, boyfriends always leave, and the government stinks. We all know when we’re in the presence of someone who takes no responsibility for difficult situations, but we rarely recognize that behavior in ourselves. Fear projected onto others seems to give us a bit of breathing room and some options. Instead of working to acknowledge and synthesize disappointment, anger, frustration, or heartache, we convince ourselves that everything would be fine if everyone else would simply behave. We turn our attention away from our uncomfortable feelings and toward others with the intention to convince people of their mistakes.
Fear of Life
Finally, even if our life is great, our self-esteem is good, and our relationships a delight, we may still find ourselves afraid of life. Surprisingly, happiness itself can be the most fearsome state of all. There is so much to lose. I often tell my husband, “If I had known I was going to love you this much, I never would have married you,” and I’m not really joking. Eventually, he and I are going to die and our relationship will be over. Every time I conjure the image of one of us saying good-bye to the other, I just lose it. I can’t hold the image in my mind for longer than it takes to type this sentence. It’s too painful. But the eventual loss is real, and there’s nothing we can do about it. We have no control over the most important aspects of our lives, the people, places, and activities we hold most dear. Because this is so scary, we try to rely on explanations, platitudes, cynicism, or magical incantations instead of facing reality. We swear to be loyal to our mates, our friends, our families—and seek such a commitment in return as a way of avoiding the frightening aspects of relationships: people could leave or betray us and we have no control over either. We believe that if we eat well, exercise, and think the right thoughts, we can control our health and never get sick. Of course we should be careful in the way we treat our bodies and form relationships, but doing these things can’t change the difficult reality that we are not in control.
The Three Mistaken Reactions to Fear
Whether it’s fear of self, others, or the realities of life, Buddhism refers to three types of fear reactions: passion, aggression, and ignorance. While we all have employed all three at various times, you may discover that you have a typical default response to situations or people that frighten you. Try to get a feel for how each kind of fear appears in your life, and if one seems more dominant.
Passion doesn’t necessarily refer to excitement, infatuation, or emotional intensity. This type of passion is related to clinging, grasping, and desperation. This fear is at work when we want something or someone so bad we can’t eat, sleep, or even hold in our awareness anything but our desire. Passion is blinding, seductive, and ultimately, impossible to satisfy. It is entirely centered on what you think you need, want, or must have. It’s like when you’re driven insane by waiting for someone to telephone and every other caller is such an irritation that you can’t wait to get rid of them. Passion blinds you to the existence of anyone or anything but your own gnawing need. This is passion as poison, a version of fear that says, If I don’t get what I want I might die, and nothing else matters. It’s nonnegotiable.
Aggression includes the obvious: engaging in head-on confrontations, fighting with words or fists, taking what doesn’t belong to you, and allowing hate against yourself or others to develop. But aggression can also include what you don’t do, like abandoning difficult relationships instead of resolving them, skipping an appointment you feel uncomfortable about, or continually delaying the day you’re going to quit smoking, start exercising, stop drinking, or forgive your mother. Aggression arises when we meet with anything or anyone that is not to our liking and we want to make it go away. In the grip of this poison, we fear unseen enemies and see everything as a threat to our security. We blame, resist, lash out, and employ subterfuge as strategies to keep ourselves protected when we feel that our view of how things should go is not taken into account. While we may have well-thought-out reasons for attempting to strong-arm others to get our way, in the end, this type of behavior is an old-fashioned, pain-inducing, self-centered hissy fit.
Aggression refers to those times when you simply lose sight of anyone but yourself in the effort to secure what you think you must have. You want to walk over the backs of others in high heels and it feels gooood.
The third expression of fear, ignorance or delusion, is a tricky one. It refers to what you’re blind to, willfully or not. We each have our blind spots, of course. Sweet and funny examples of blind spots can be seen on fashion makeover television programs (which I love). The hosts find women who dress terribly and teach them how to become gorgeous. They show the women what to wear to enhance their natural beauty, which is always, always revealed. When the women stop fearing that they’re too old, overweight, or boring to be beautiful, they see their real beauty, which was always there. They burst into tears, along with their family and friends (and me). Why couldn’t they see it before? Why, until now, had they seen themselves as ugly and dressed accordingly? Ignorance is whatever transpires in the space between the woman and her image. This may seem like a silly example, but it shows how sometimes we’re content to sit around in our own messes. It’s too hard to change our view of ourselves or the world. We fall asleep instead of paying attention to problems, “forget” appointments or engagements we’d rather not have made, hide behind low self-esteem, or repeat the same mistake over and over without seeming to learn from it.
The most difficult form of ignorance (and, therefore, of fear) is not even knowing that you are afraid. The same difficult situations repeat themselves in your life, and you are unaware that this is because of the choices you make about how to react, behave, and believe. This is a very thorny problem to work with. Without awareness of your inner workings, you invariably project your discomfort out onto the world. Do you always end up in a job where only you know what to do? Do you find yourself being hurt over and over in the same way by people with remarkably similar personalities? Are you always on the sidelines, waiting for something or someone better to come along? Are you continually unable to make decisions about your own life because things still aren’t quite clear enough? A yes answer to any of these questions is a red flag. Any time you blame someone or something for your circumstance, an alarm should go off, and it’s helpful to ask yourself what you may be ignoring.
Copyright © 2007 by Susan Piver. All rights reserved.