Fear has a very negative reputation – a reputation that is totally unjustified. Many of us spend our lives trying to rid ourselves of fear. We have demonised it so much that we are unable to see how unavoidable it is when living a full life. The truth is that it is totally impossible to live without fear. Fear, as a physical signal of danger, is essential to survive and thrive. As a parent you will recognize the eternal vigilance you have for your children. In allowing them to grow and develop their freedom (as distinct from wrapping them in cotton-wool all of their lives) your fear for them is unavoidable. “Be careful”, “Mind yourself”, “Take Care”, we all repeat endlessly to our children. The thing is, we cannot have freedom and safety at the same time. The price of freedom is to experience fear.
In seeing fear as negative we have taken a completely natural and essential human emotion and turned into something abhorrent. We have been taught from an early age that if we accept fear then bad things will happen to us. We are conditioned into believing that our fear is a reflection of our weakness, and that we should not like being afraid! We say things like: “Your not afraid, are you?” “Don’t be afraid.”. We therefore don’t like to admit that we are feeling fear! This kind of conditioning is what causes children to lie, for example. Fear is the only reason we lie. It is the only reason adults con children into thinking they should not experience fear. Life, however, is scary for children and adults. What we should be saying is “It’s all right to be afraid when something scares you”. “The bravest men in the world are also very afraid. That’s why they are heroes”. We need to teach children how to be positively afraid.
We are even naturally afraid of each other in intimate relationships. Fear of your partner is ultimately emerges as an essential problem in intimacy. This is why the term vulnerability has meaning. To be open and vulnerable, to share one’s deepest feelings, one has to befriend the natural fear we all have of being hurt or misunderstood. Many men sit in my office, arms crossed, ever defiant and self-sufficient, guarded up like a fortress and stating “I am not afraid!”. Why all the armour so, I ask? We build the armour to defend against fear and vulnerability.
However, it is in the acknowledgement of fear that the human heart opens to life. Love then becomes possible. Without fear, there is no love. For many men, to experience fear is to feel that there is something terribly wrong with them. So people need alcohol, affairs, aggression, domination, control, addictions, and status rather than admit to the fear that drives them.
Life is both scary and wonderful. To want to get rid of fear is to want to shirk away from life itself. To banish the unwelcome guest of fear from our hearts and minds is to miss the point of living. It may sound strange, but as much as fear brings dread it equally brings joy and exhileration. Fear is the basis of courage and heroism. As long as we run from fear we can never permit the full, and yes, joyful experience of life.
Joy, in fact emerges in the context of fear that is embraced and overcome. Many fun activities involve danger: Just visit an amusement park and watch the sheer delight on peoples faces on various rides and roller coasters. Small children on smaller rides – watching their faces grow through anxiety to delight. In fact excitement and thrill involves a form of delightful fear! One might say that all enjoyment involves the embracing of fear, and the relaxed surrender that follows. To fully experience joy means having come through an ordeal that has fully tested us and pushed us to the limit.
“The secret of life is in knowing how to be afraid.” To be alive, to experience life in its raw intensity, to acknowledge our vulnerability, is to know fear. In knowing how to be afraid we then open a window to exhilaration, joy, and the vulnerability of love. To watch your children play at the edge of a terrifying sea is to feel fear. Yet in knowing that fear, you also know what love is. Why so? You love your children because you know that life is brief and that loss awaits all of us. Love is animated by fear and loss, and experienced as joy and wonder. All is one.
When we open our hearts we can see that fear is a positive feeling of anxiety and agitation reflected in the human experiences of courage, respect, beauty, wonder, love, and joy.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. You can find more articles by Dr. O'Connor in the Evening Echo every Wednesday.