shrinking in fear
Scared about immediate things and adjacent things and systemic things. Some medical stuff, some money stuff, the fragility of the places where the land meets the water, here in South & Central Texas. Ongoing evidence of that widespread planetary fragility. Ongoing evidence of the bigotry and selfishness and human disconnection running rampant through our culture.
Yesterday, a new fear. Took my dog to the vet for a test that may yield an answer that I really, really don’t want. Around the mechanics of taking him to and collecting him from the vet, I did nothing else. I hunkered down. I literally stayed in bed and read escapist fiction and tried not to do anything that would make me engage with life and thus be reminded that a big thing in my life right now is waiting for these test results.
I’ve been scared, lately, and I’m noticing how I am making my life small, in response to that fear. Because this is what we do, around fear. All of us. Instinctually.
Very, very physically, we contract. We tense. We pull in. We hold tighter. We grasp. We make ourselves smaller. Less of a target. We consolidate. To be afraid is to be clenched.
And not just physically. We make ourselves smaller in every way. This is how the chain reaction works: something happens that triggers fear. We respond. Biologically, unthinkingly, automatically, we respond. This is where we cringe, flinch, cower, tighten, prepare. That’s our animal body doing its animal body thing. But the next thing we do is what matters. When our human being-ness gets into the action. Tells a story. Chooses a behavior to assuage or to act out that feeling of visceral powerlessness. Our animal body responds, but our human brain reacts.
Our brains tell the stories that make our lives smaller. That person who is different from me wouldn’t like me. Well, I don’t like them either. Those ideas don’t co-exist comfortably with my ideas, they must be wrong. That could never happen to me, those people that it happened to were stupid. Or they deserved it. Oh well, I can’t do anything about it anyway.
Physically, we contract around fear. And I think our brains and our hearts get, at least temporarily, a little bit smaller as well.
I asked for suggestions about topics for today’s posts. The folks who responded asked or pointed to, in slightly different ways, the same couple of questions: Why do people sometimes behave so badly? And how do we live with that?
I think, always, the answer to the first question is fear. We are afraid, initially, and then we react against and out of that fear. From that place of contraction we thrust out – we flail, we wound, we push away. Anything that is different, new to our experience, can frighten our animal body. But instead of stopping and asking our human brain is this really a threat to me? A physical threat to my bodily existence? we tend to instead use the awesome power of that brain to do the most powerful (and deadly) magic we know – to tell a story that makes that fear okay.
And hey, sometimes, fear is fine. Sometimes fear is right. But a lot of the time fear is just reflex. It’s a startle response to something new, or sudden, or unexpected. It doesn’t actually require that we exterminate, exile or excoriate the thing (or person, or idea) that frightened us.
Physically we are such fragile creatures, and we have prey-animal wiring right in there along with our hunter-gatherer DNA. We get scared, a lot, and, in my opinion at least, that fear is the engine that underlies all the cruel and hateful and even petty (gossip is just lazy peer-group bonding, driven by the fear of being outside the group) stuff that we do.
How to live with that? I admit that I don’t live with it very well, myself. I get angry and frustrated and heartbroken. I withdraw. I get cynical and I despair. People are hard for me. I aspire to more skillful means than I manage, most of the time.
Here’s what I try to do: to look for the fear under the words or actions (or inactions) that are challenging me. To look for the fear in my own response to those challenges. I try to slow down the chain reaction, notice the moment just before I jump from response to reaction. I try to be conscious of the stories I’m telling, to others and myself, and why I’m telling them. I try not to tell stories out of fear.
I try to remember to speak to the fear in those who challenge me, and to name the fears that I think are driving the structures, processes and prejudices that I believe need to change. Words are what I do, so that’s what I use. It’s just another form of truth-telling. It’s bringing attention to what is, and you can do that in whatever way you do – with words or images or aid or action.
When behavior (of others or my own) appalls me, I try to 1) remember that fear is the engine, 2) name the fear that is hiding underneath all the bluster – the sometimes-tiny-as-a-pinprick wound that all the infection has puffed and swollen around, and 3) ask the question, out loud, that the fear is there to ask: does/will this thing really harm me, and how?
The trick here is to be really honest about harm. A challenge to my ideas does not harm me. A change in the way I’m comfortable doing (or saying, or thinking about) something does not harm me. Other peoples’ pain and helplessness doesn’t harm me. Neither does other peoples’ joy.
Something that really could harm me? Climate change. So I can choose to prioritize action on that issue. I can work to change the thing that I am genuinely afraid of.
As for test results – mine and my dog’s – they’re just information. They may indicate that harm has already happened. And that will be sad, and effective action may be expensive. There may be some different choices to be made about money-resources. I will have feelings about all of that. I already do. But the feelings, even if they’re really unpleasant, won’t harm me. Life, all life, is on this trajectory anyway. There are things to be done until there aren’t anymore, and then there is letting go.
Not the nicest thing about Life, but also nothing really to fear. No, I take that back – fear around change and loss is fine, natural, inevitable – nothing I need to react to. I don’t have to rationalize or minimize or blame someone for entropy, even when it affects bodies that matter to me. I can feel the fear, breathe gently into those constricted places rather than explode out of them, and just do the next thing.
Sometimes the next thing is just putting the book down, getting out of bed, and having breakfast. I’ll start with that today.
This post was written by Laurie Dietrich