My dear friend is in a new relationship. It is her first in nearly a decade. It has been only a short time, but she is positively head over heels in love with this new man. It was a delight to listen as my friend sang her new boyfriend’s praises and expressed her deep joy and gratitude for having met him. But then something happened that saddened me.
My friend began to express fear; specifically, fear that her new relationship would not last, that this man would end up rejecting her or that it would turn out not to be the amazing union that she had hoped. It wasn’t the fear, however, that saddened me, but rather her response to that fear. Within seconds she had shifted from feeling confident and reveling in her joy to attacking herself viciously — for being afraid. She told me that fear was her worst enemy — always sabotaging her life. If she could not get past and rid of her fear, she was certain that she would destroy this relationship and lose her chance at happiness. Put simply, she — like most people — despises her own fear.
In this culture we are taught to believe that fear is the enemy; if we are afraid, it means that we are weak, that there is something wrong with us. We believe that if we allow our fear to be heard or considered, it will prevent us from getting what we want; that fear is bigger than and separate from us. Furthermore, if we let fear win, we are losers.
After my friend had finished attacking herself, I asked her a simple question: Does she love this man, and does she want this new relationship to last? Yes and yes was her answer. I then asked another question: Could she be certain that it would work out, that he would be “the one”? She replied, Of course not, nothing was ever certain. I then asked a final question: Given the answers to the first two questions, how could she be angry with her fear, and at herself for having fear?
With the invitation to consider the validity of her fear, to hear from the fear itself, she immediately broke into a smile. Fear’s experience was not something that she had ever imagined she could welcome into the dialogue. She had never had a relationship with her fear that was made of anything other than anger, never been anything but furious at and afraid of fear. I was suggesting the rightness of her enemy — not that fear was right about the relationship failing, but rather the rightness of it being scary to want something to work and not know if it would. Indeed, I was encouraging a handshake between lifelong opponents.
It is not my friend’s fear that has hindered her, but rather her relationship with fear. Our fear is actually on the same side as we are. My friend’s fear exists precisely because of the joy that this relationship brings. Her fear is borne out of wanting to hold on to all that joy and knowing that the future is not entirely up to her or in her control. In truth, fear is the ultimate joy protector. When seen through its eyes, fear is in fact quite sensible.
We must stop judging, blaming and shaming our fear. It doesn’t mean that we spend all day negotiating with it, listening to its worries — we do not let it run the show — but we must have compassion for its wish to protect us from loss, to hang on to our joy. What could be saner than such a wish? When we stop rejecting and hating fear, we disarm it and remove its power. As a result, fear stops being frightening and disruptive. What we reject becomes fiercer and scarier; what we welcome eases and lightens.
How can we experience deep joy without also considering loss? Are they not two sides of the same coin? Taking a walk with my 9-year-old, I experience the deepest gratitude possible, for getting to have this blessed time together with my child. And yet interlaced in that poignant sweetness is the knowing that it won’t always be this way, that we won’t always get to have this. Fear is the flag that reminds us of what we cherish and so deeply want. The path is in offering fear a seat at our inner table, understanding its place, its side. To befriend fear is to wrap our arm around it — let it know that we are indeed on the same side, that we too do not want to lose what is precious to us. So, too, we can reassure fear that we are doing everything we know how to do to keep what it fears from happening.
Fear doesn’t like the unknown, nor does it care for the certainty of change. As I stroll through the park with my little girl, her blonde head still 13 inches south, her rainbow-painted fingers intertwined in mine, I can’t say that I much disagree.