Updated: Sep 12, 2020
For anyone who prefers or requires audio, a recording of this piece is available here for the next month.
I attended online church this past Sunday, which involved me negotiating between my housemate’s dog’s desire to go sniff an electric box, and my own desire to stay within my neighborhood’s spotty 4G service so I could keep listening to the dulcet tones of my beloved pastor.
At one point during her sermon, our pastor mentioned something about fear, that fear wasn’t given to us by God, or something like that, that fear was more associated with “that other force.” Ya know, evil, Satan, the defiler, the basher of worlds, the fucker-upper-of-Eden, etc.
I don’t know if she would have been quite that blunt. She factually was not. It was a subtle maligning of fear, but the idea was to seek peace and calm in the heart of God, instead. Which seems great.
And it is.
And it’s… not.
When we run from fear, we dismiss what it has to say.
In her book The Language of Emotions, Karla McLaren discusses the gifts of fear.
Yes, the gifts!
Fear stops us in our tracks sometimes, or spurs us to worried action, and she asserts that fear is a perfectly functional response to and experience of existing! It’s a feature, not a bug, of our human systems - our hearts, bodies, and souls.
To quote from her website, which I will link here:
“Fear is not cowardice; it is the protective mechanism inside you that knows you’re not adequately prepared for whatever is coming next. Fear stops you – not to immobilize you, but to give you the time you need to gather yourself and your resources. Fear steps forward when you require extra skills – or time to take a breather – so that you can make it through the next moment. If you trust your fear and take time to focus yourself, it will give you those skills.”
With every emotion, she says that there is an internal question or three to go with it. For fear, it is, “What action should be taken?” and she goes on to say,
“Your fear will help you orient yourself to what’s going on around you and make the best decision, which is entirely unique to each situation. When your instincts are informed by your healthy fear, you’ll have hundreds of options – and if you let it, your fear will help you choose the right one each time. If you listen to your fear, you’ll have access to more expert information, instincts, and resources than you could ever possibly need.”
Listen to your fear? Preposterous. Why would we do that? Why not push it down?
It can be so UNCOMFY!
And, well—Karla just gave you some reasons.
How do we listen?
Her site, linked above, and here, again, has some great suggestions. If you scroll down there's a section entitled “A simple way to access your fear” that offers some great guidance.
I’d also like to offer a poem—“The Guest House,” written by Rumi, as translated by Coleman Barks.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice. meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes. because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
— Jellaludin Rumi
I first heard the poem during college as a part of a mindfulness course with Kay Stewart.
The poem has become a staple in my emotional toolkit.
Anytime I start to feel like a feeling is bad, bad, bad, I try to go into Guest House Mode.
Sometimes I literally talk to myself aloud, saying, “Heyyyyy fear! What’s up? What can I get you to drink? Anything in particular bring you here today?”
I could even jazz it up with a "You come here often?" But I already know the answer to the question. A simple, "Yes, love. I do." Not much of a conversation starter, so I keep it open-ended, hospitable, not too flirtatious.
Sometimes Fear will need time to settle in before it can answer my questions. Sometimes I'll feel it really intensely for a minute, reluctant to stand back from the doorway, not sure Fear is really a safe visitor.
If I try to turn Fear away at the door, well. Emotions are more powerful, and have more endurance, than me, or you. My fears will sit at the door until enough of them have arrived. Sometimes they start a raucous protest on the sidewalk, marching just beyond the front porch of my heart, until I finally let them in.
If I really wait too long, they have a tendency to ransack the house, hungry, taking whatever energy I can give, leaving me in tears, or sick. This is not because they are malicious, but because they needed me to hear them. And if I wasn’t going to hear them while I was energetic and feeling well, they needed to slow me down enough that I’d listen.
One of my favorite teachers, Zhenevere Sophia Dao regularly describes the emotions as gods, pointing out that they are ever so powerful, and that they move us. Indeed, motion is right in the word. E. Motion. Like E. Coli. But less likely to induce diarrhea. And many times more contagious.
Our emotions are not for us. They are not individual things, experienced discretely. They are the threads of the fragile and infallible web of life that we traverse every. single. day.
Never has this been so clear as now, when we do not necessarily fear or act for ourselves, especially if we are young and fairly healthy. We fear, and we act accordingly, out of love and care for collective vulnerability, for our grandparents, for our friends with the lung conditions, for our neighbors, for our first responders, for our littlest babies and our years-wizened-and-wisened elders.
As often as possible, but especially in these times of deep uncertainty, allow your heart to be a gorgeous Guest House for fear.
Seek to become more beautiful than the circumstances at hand.
Fear tells us important things, but you have to be in relation to it, to make love to it and of it. You have to be brave enough to welcome it into your Guest House, to let it see you, to listen to it, knowing it just wants to help you in your becoming.
Zhen reminded us once in class: “Learn to love your fear until it morphs into engagement.”
And a dear friend of mine, Jared, once similarly observed, “Alex, you seem to fear, fear. Have you ever thought of thinking of it as anticipation?”
Both of them were telling me the same thing. Fear moves us, and itself. It does not want to be stagnant, left sitting at the door. It can become anticipation, engagement, and wise action.
I have had a regularly strugglesome and fraught love affair with Fear. I have thought Fear was out to get me. They’re not. She’s not. He’s not. Fear just wants me to listen. He wants me to hear. They want me to act. She wants me to care for myself and others in the best ways I can.
And while I think raw fear, deep anxiety, true panic, does have its place, sitting heavy, paralyzing, itchy, and cold—eventually, fear moves.
It’s a bit like an alka seltzer tablet, solid state at first, but fizzing when in contact with flowing water, breaking apart, moving, willing to make things other things move, reacting, stretching the bounds of its container if pent up.