By Jim Selman | Bio
I just finished reading a piece in the Jan/Feb issue of the Utne Reader called Overcoming Fear Culture and Fear Itself by Julie Hanus. It is a great commentary on how our society has become wracked with all sorts of fears. She points to the fact that fear is a major fuel for lots of politicians and businesses, but that we pay a very large price to create an illusion of safety. The price is not just the billions we spend on physical security. It is also the isolation we create for ourselves when we don’t trust each other, the spiritual angst we encounter when we lack confidence in ourselves and our ‘reality’, and the kind of withdrawal/denial (and even paralysis) that comes after long periods of stress and worry.
All in all, there isn’t much good to say about fear, although a few die-hards will argue that it serves some positive purpose such as keeping us awake and alert to things that we should fear. I won’t argue the point. Aside from the ‘flight or fight’ reflex that is pure biology, most of our fears are rooted in our interpretations and relationship to the world. Moreover, if we expand the question from “Why are we afraid?” to “Why do our fears persist even in the face of facts that risk is minimal?”, then we begin to see that our fears are an extension of a worldview that we live in an ‘objective’ reality and that our perceptions of reality are also real. I’ll leave the paradox of this particular chicken and the egg for another blog, but it comes down to the fact that we perceive real or imaginary threats and then experience and act on what we perceive and experience.
In Alcoholics Anonymous, fear is a big deal. In fact, most alcoholics and other “12-Steppers” will agree that fear underlies most—if not all—of their addictions. A popular acronym for fear is Future Events Appearing Real. When we think that everything is the way we think it is, we become trapped in a self-referential spiral in which we can’t escape our own view and end up in denial of any perspective that disagrees or challenges our view—in other words, we are on an ego-trip with no return ticket. Hence, the conventional wisdom of AA that alcohol is the symptom of a ‘disease of self-centeredness’.
Fear then becomes a permanent excuse and justification for continuing whatever self-destructive behaviors we might think up. The bottom line is that we will let the fears control us until we either die or ‘hit bottom’ and realize that our fears are costing us more than whatever benefits we think we are gaining from resisting and trying to control all of the things that we are afraid of.
I am told that the physiology of fear is the same as that of excitement—the body can’t tell the difference. If this is so, then we must wonder what is the difference? My answer is that the difference is our story about our selves and each other, our relationship to the circumstances and maybe how we perceive time. If we want to transform our fears into excitement, then we must change our story.
A lot of people are afraid of growing older, being marginalized by the young and a host of other things. In the next post in this series, I’m going to look deeper into the question of how we can learn to at least transform—if not transcend—our fears at any age.
© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.