Wisdom and Fear

I heard someone remark that the best thing about getting older is they don’t have to be afraid anymore. While I think that is one of life’s ‘truisms’, it falls into the same category as your mother telling you “not to worry”—it doesn’t help much to know that when you are worried! From what I can see, most people get more fearful and anxious as they age. This anxiety takes various forms: fear of not having enough money, fear of being homeless, fear of being alone, fear of becoming dependent or of losing one’s faculties. The list could go on.

I am not of the opinion that there is nothing to fear. There are lots of things to fear. A person would have to be naïve not to pay attention to what they are doing and what’s going on around them. I am reminded, for example, of getting mugged last year. Just last month, my son was attacked by a vicious street gang while walking home; fortunately, he got through it without any lasting harm. The point is that lots of bad things can happen and most of us are not well prepared for a future that is increasingly unpredictable and (from all current indications) becoming more and more expensive. Certainly millions of aging Boomers are insufficiently prepared for traditional retirement.

What I have learned in my life, however, is that fear, while sometimes justified, doesn’t make much difference in terms of how things turn out. More often than not it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. (After all, we do get what we resist). In AA, we say that fear is F.E.A.R. (Future Events Appearing Real). Fear comes from projecting our story onto reality and believing the story. It is the ultimate egoistic way of relating to the world: we live inside our history and our point of view as if that were all there is—as if life is the way we think it is, rather than something else altogether. When we are blind to other possibilities, we can easily fall into a kind of self-centered denial and withdraw into a fear-based relationship with life.

We need to distinguish fear as a natural biological response to an imminent threat (such as being attacked) and our psychologically generated fear (based on “What if’s?” and hearsay). Certainty is not the cure for fear. In fact, our thirst for certainty is just another context for control (which is most of the problem anyway). The cure for fear is our capacity to be conscious and present to whatever is happening and to be responsible for our actions and our circumstances. We may still have fears, but the fears no longer ‘have’ us.

Fear is usually the justification for inaction. Wisdom is a product of action. No matter what our life experience tells us or what our current circumstances and situation in life may be, we can’t control what will happen. But we can always have a choice in how we relate to what happens. If we are present and in action, that may be as good as it gets. That is “wisdom in action”.