FEAR OF FEAR ITSELF: Finding Emotional Courage

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a speech in the 1930’s on conquering the Great Depression

One of the major blocks many people face in healing from emotional depression is fear. This comes in many forms. Fear of intimacy is often a fear of rejection and shame. Fear of the future is a fear that if we embrace optimism, something awful will happen. Many people fear taking risks in relationships, or in their careers. Someone once said “I fell in love once and it didn’t last. How can I ever love again?” Another sentiment, often expressed: “I felt the presence of something deeply peaceful and beautiful in myself. I called it God, or the feeling of divine love. It didn’t last, so why should I believe in something that goes away?”

There is an intimate relationship in the psyche between traumatic loss and fear, often resulting in a life lived on the surface of things, unable to commit to others . Even if we pretend otherwise, many people secretly believe that everyone will either hurt them, or at best be a huge disappointment. This fear protects us from the anxiety that comes with reaching out, or daring to hope for more depth in our relationships or our work.

This  also shows up in our relationship to ourselves: a fear of trusting or valuing who we are, in all our imperfection and vulnerability. We think we have to make ourselves perfect, or no one will love us. This is a hopeless enterprise at best. So when we make a mistake, we beat ourselves up, mistrusting our own misunderstood human capacity.

All of this can translate into a dysfunctional relationship with fear itself, as if fear is the guard dog that keeps the us “safe” from the misadventure of trusting or loving ourselves or others. We come to respect our fear as we would an old friend, knowing it, obeying it. Herein lies the trap. Giving fear so much power, keeps us forever trapped in depression, anxiety, low self worth, and loneliness.

In the classic Broadway musical THE FANTASTIKS, the Narrator says,

There is a curious paradox that no one can explain

            Who understands the secret of the beating of the rain

            Who understands why spring is born out of winter’s laboring pain

            Or why we must all die a bit, before we grow again?

This beautiful lyric has meaning on so many levels. We all suffer. We all “die a bit” when we lose someone, are hurt by them, or experience disappointment or loss. And yet, this allows us to grow, to open to new parts of ourselves, to find the courage to confront our fear and to experience the real feelings lurking in shadows.

What can this be? What is behind the fear?  Courage is the ability to face the unknown. To say to this tyrannical fear, “You are hiding something from me. Whatever it is, I can face it.”

This can be so many things. People often idealize a parent who has been abusive, out of a deep need to believe in an all-nurturing father or mother. Pulling aside the veil of fear can expose them for the flawed, damaged people they really are. To see, and feel the truth behind the fear means experiencing grief, anger, sadness, the rage of the betrayed.

“So why should I do that?” you may ask. “Why would anybody want to go through all those bad feelings?”

The truth of it is that if we give fear the power to alienate us from our true feelings, we suffer far more in the long run, by leading an “as if” life locked in depression and emotional distance. Carl Jung called tears, “the royal road to the soul.”  And yet, it is not so easy to open up all those buried feelings. Tears often need a nurturing other – a dear friend, counselor, or group of like-suffering souls, to extend compassion while the wounded person grieves.

There is another paradox, at first as invisible as the secret of the beating of the rain. As we learn to feel the depths of loss, betrayal, and rage, we can awaken to the universal human condition. We are not alone in our suffering. Even if we had an idyllic childhood, as was apparently the case for the famous Asian prince, Siddhartha, eventually, the reality of death, loss, illness, pain, comes to us all.

At age 30 he stepped outside the walls of his palace and saw a dead body, people going hungry, people in pain. He left all of his worldly goods behind and set out to find a way out of the cycle of death/birth/loss.

After many years of wandering and struggle, Siddhartha found his answer in Enlightenment. He experienced the oneness of our humanity in all our suffering, and joy. The way out of individual pain is to acknowledge this reality, step through our fears and reach out to each other.

Healing from depression calls each of us to step beyond the castle walls of our own fear and feel our way to our own Enlightenment.  We can learn to carry the reality of loss with us every day, without succumbing to depression. We can choose joy and beauty and meaning because life is temporary. This flower will never again be so beautiful, my little girl is a woman now and I will never again lift her high in my arms, I will never hear the voice of someone who meant the world to me because he died, but my love for him is eternal.

Joy, even as spring is born out of winter’s laboring pain.

1 thought on “FEAR OF FEAR ITSELF: Finding Emotional Courage

  1. Just reading this, and again, writing full of wisdom. Thank you Elizabeth.

    (You may be able to gather these writings into a published collection at some point. Just sayin’…)

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