The "more-popular-than-ever" holiday of Halloween offers the yearly opportunity to dispel fear with fun. The costumes, the decorations, the food are all intended to make the horrifying safe and not-so-scary. Martha Stewart has even made Halloween "tasteful" with her extensive line of Halloween decor and her amazing Halloween issue featuring her awesome costumes and clever, artistic pumpkin carvings. Great, but what do we do with fear the other 364 days of the year? In a time of Ebola outbreaks and school shootings and ISIS, how do we live in equanimity and not let fear rule our lives?
We need to start by examining the good and bad influences that fear can have on our behavior and choices. Some fears are well-founded and best if respected. So, for example, if you cannot swim (which I couldn't for many, many years) a fear of water is justified. Even now I would not challenge my abilities in the water in any way.
Some fears are primal and instinctive. I fear snakes and have a visceral reaction if one crosses my path while walking. I can argue it away logically but it doesn't change my gut feeling. I could desensitize myself to them, but that would have to be a slow, slow, deliberate process (if done too quickly, the therapy can have the opposite effect). By the way, many people have either a primal fear of snakes or spiders and thus this may be buried deep into our genetic codes.
Some fears are built out of childhood, or an experience of the past. (I avoided meatloaf for years as a kid because I'd gotten sick one night after dinner and meatloaf had been the main course). Some fears are crafted out of years of insecurity and thus you may think you aren't smart enough, or pretty enough, or even lucky enough. You may even hide your proverbial light under a bushel for fear of putting it out there and seeing it quickly dim.
Some fears are based on the state of the world. Everything seems too desperate, there is too much despair, and violence, and hardship, and forces that are way beyond our control. The weight of the world and its troubles can become overwhelming and make you fearful to experience what our world has to offer.
But can we flip all of this on its head? I just finished a book by Neil Gaimon, Neverwhere. The tale centers on Richard Mayhew, a modern-day financial advisor, living a pretty ho-hum, pathetic life, who stumbles upon a waif of a woman bleeding in the streets of London. He takes her back to his flat to care for her and then finds himself catapulted into a different world and time, the Victorian-era "London Below" created out of the sewers and tunnel lines of the city. He finds life there an endless challenge as he encounters strange people who have pieced together an existence from the detritus of life above. Sleep, warmth, food, shelter and safety are luxuries not "givens" and it all proves enormously trying for this modern man. However, despite the difficulties, Richard finds himself truly alive, finally "growing up," and ultimately bored with the reality of a life lived too easily.
So what can we take away from this? How about confronting fear, examining it, accepting that which is useful and discarding that which is not?
- List your fears, from the big ones (perhaps death) to the seemingly trivial (a fear of escalators, for example).
- Go through the list and scratch off those fears that are either far-fetched or truly inconsequential in terms of their impact on your life.
- Go through the list and scratch off those things over which you have no control (like tornadoes).
- What are you left with? Are these fears that could be dispelled with some planning? (So, if you fear your car is going to conk out, can you start putting away some money each month to buy another one when it does?) Take control.
- Can some of your fears be lessened with positive affirmations? Yes, I know, a bit Stuart Small (for old SNL fans) but what does it hurt to tell yourself that you are a pretty awesome person with the capacity to live happily and to contribute to this world?
- Can some larger fears be mitigated simply by not following the news so closely? What good does it do you to know every terrible thing going on around the globe?