Fear: A Meditation

In my continuing word meditation series, the word today is: fear.

Such a small word. Even its etymology is short and simple.

No complex conceptual evolution. No transitions or transformations across time and cultures.

It’s just fear.

Perhaps this word is simple because the thing itself is so simple. Perhaps it is unchanged because it doesn’t need to change: fear is now as it was and shall always be.

I don’t have to describe it to you, you know it well. And you recognize it in others easily, even beyond humans. Fear is the most recognizable emotion most broadly among living creatures.

Fear is one of the most important things in keeping us alive. Fear is one of the things that most hampers our ability to thrive.

We would die without fear, but we cannot live with too much fear. They say a real hero isn’t one who feels no fear; a hero is one who feels fear and still acts. And so we spend all our lives learning how to manage it, how to face it, how to accept its lifetime companionship.

In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to rally a terrified nation against fear and accurately described its effects: So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Nikos Kazantzakis (author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ) asserted his overcoming of fear and the fear of death especially by having written as his epigraph: Δεν ελπίζω τίποτε. Δεν φοβούμαι τίποτε. Είμαι λεύτερος (I don’t fear anything, I do not hope for anything, I am free).

The Buddha also spoke about the role of fear in one’s life: The whole secret of existence is to have no fear. Never fear what will become of you, depend on no one. Only the moment you reject all help are you freed.

Frank Herbert in his novel Dune coined his famous Litany Against Fear. Even if it was for a work of fiction, it has true power and usefulness:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Roshi Joan Halifax in Being with Dying quotes Rainer Maria Rilke saying “Love and Death are the great gifts that are given to us; mostly they are passed on unopened.” Why are they mostly passed on unopened? I think it’s because of fear: we’re afraid to open them. And that is a shame.

If I’ve learned one thing as I’ve gotten older and learned how to make my relationship with fear more a true partnership, it’s that the more I feel brave enough to open those presents, the more rich, fulfilled and previously unimaginably wonderful my life has become.

It’s not a perfect relationship: fear and I still have rough patches like any lifetime partnership does. But we’re not fighting like we used to. Fear keeps me alive so that I can then do what I need to thrive.

So, to my fear, I say: thank you. I look forward to many more years of working with you.