Running Towards Your Fears

I had just poured water into the heating filter for a Captain Country Chicken MRE, and was preparing to remove some layers of clothing beneath my flak vest (the weather had turned hot after the freezing night), when RPG and small-arms fire rattled the scrap iron that formed the roof of the filthy garage headquarters.

The fire directed at us did not let up. Over the ICOM, Smith learned that it was coming from a mosque on Michigan about 300 yards away. The mosque was promptly targeted for a possible air strike, and everyone began a fast march toward it.

Smith did not have to order his Marines straight into the direction of the fire; it was a collective impulse—a phenomenon I would see again and again over the coming days. The idea that Marines are trained to break down doors, to seize beachheads and other territory, was an abstraction until I was there to experience it. Running into fire rather than seeking cover from it goes counter to every human survival instinct—trust me. I was sweating as much from fear as from the layers of clothing I still had on from the night before, to the degree that it felt as if pure salt were running into my eyes from my forehead. As the weeks had rolled on, and I had gotten to know the 1/5 Marines as the individuals they were, I had started deluding myself that they weren’t much different from me. They had soft spots, they got sick, they complained. But in one flash, as we charged across Michigan amid whistling incoming shots, I realized that they were not like me; they were Marines.

“Five Days in Fallujah” by Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic July/August 2004

This is an essay that I read years ago out of my interest in history and military history. It’s by the journalist Robert D. Kaplan and details his experiences as an “embedded” journalist, accompanying the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment in 2004 as they worked to take the Iraqi town of Fallujah. The battle for Fallujah in 2004 was some of the hardest fighting in the Iraq war, and Kaplan’s article gives a good feel for what it was like on the ground.

While my interest in military history has waned some lately, I find that this excerpt has a lot of value outside of its military context. For while it’s talking about how Marines are trained to respond instinctively under fire in combat, it’s more about how human beings respond to fear and danger. And in that vein, it’s actually an important lesson and example for everyone and how we approach life and the fears and anxieties we face every day.

The simple fact is that fear is a part of being human, like I outlined in my word meditation on fear. We don’t get to choose whether we will experience fear or not. We get to choose what we do with our fear when it comes upon us.

Our reaction to fear is instinctive. Our body and mind urge us to either run away from our fear, or to hide and wait for it to pass us by. Both of those are natural responses and they have their place and purpose.

But we have another option, one that is not natural but can be learned. We can run towards our fears and face them. Unlike this example, when we run to meet our fears we’re not necessarily looking to fight them or overcome them. Rather, we’re looking to dispel them somehow. Oftentimes, once we are face to face with our fears, dispelling them is simply a matter of listening to them and understanding what they have to say. After all, fear ultimately isn’t an adversary; it’s a part of us that’s doing a job that’s meant to benefit us. But to do that, to engage with fear, we first have to run towards it, not away. And that’s no easy thing: many times we can feel that what we’re afraid of and have to run towards is something that could well destroy us.

That’s what these Marines did under fire, run towards something that could destroy them. And it’s instructive to look at how they came to be able to do it. They trained for it, they practiced it, over and over again. Through drills, exercises, and real-life experiences, they slowly developed new instincts, new responses and new habits. Until finally, the first, immediate response, without having to think about it, is to run towards rather than away.

I used to be a very fearful person. Then, I spent ten years working in crisis management. And over time, I learned to run towards things that I was afraid of, because running away only made it worse.

Over time, I learned to apply those lessons from work more broadly in life. And now, as I’m more focused once again on questions of spirituality and growth, I find that this is an important lesson for all of us. All of us can stand to learn how to run towards our fears rather than away from them.

It’s not easy. It’s not safe. Sometimes you get hurt. But it’s the right thing to do, the right way to approach life. And the lesson from this particular episode is that it can be done successfully and the key to that success is through practice.

Fortunately, being humans, we have a chance to practice running towards our fears every day.