Fear Less

Sometimes there is nothing to be afraid of. Perhaps most of the time. I didn’t realize how often fear is my go-to approach until one night this week it switched off.

I was puzzling through some non-life-threatening problem that I had invested with a great deal of urgency when it suddenly became clear that there was nothing urgent about it. There are life-threatening situations in this world that may warrant fear—fires, hurricanes, bombs, abuse—but whether the kitchen gets clean or the work assignment gets finished or the person likes me are not among them. Yet I invest these moments with such fraught energy.

I carry around a mostly unconscious, baseline assumption that unless I’m a little afraid, I won’t perform well. As if fear makes everything better. As if life were a performance.

This approach assumes a certain untrustworthiness in oneself and the world. This worldview does not admit the value of failure, the freedom of making mistakes, or, perhaps most importantly, the beauty of one’s self.

We are always changing and evolving along with the rest of creation, and though we participate in that evolution, we’re not in control of it. I think we’re taught that anything out of our control is scary, and that includes our true selves, hidden with Christ in God.

Maybe we have good reason to be scared of our true selves. The more we get in touch with the Love at the center of our being, the harder it will be to continue living as we have been. Our habits of thinking and feeling, the rules we’ve made for ourselves, the criteria by which we’ve reassured ourselves that we’re OK will all begin to feel empty.

But we’ll exchange survival for joy, stasis for dynamism, fear for trust, and self-protection for love. Not a bad tradeoff, all in all.

Loving Our Failures

I saw a man at a bus stop this week trying to look as if he chose to be there, and I thought, how much time and energy do I spend maintaining that “everything’s OK, nothing to see here” front?

Nadia Bolz Weber in her book Accidental Saints says that we live in a society that only loves winners. In that society, we must ride the bus as a preference, not because we can’t afford a car. That would make us unlovable. In that society, we will be deserted if we fail, and the norms of that society are alive and well in my brain.

This mindset guarantees a life of fear because as long as we’re human, we are going to fail. We’re even going to fail at the same thing over and over again despite our best intentions. I certainly do, and I avoid looking at those failures because they terrify me, because part of me believes that whoever sees them will walk away and never come back.

The first thing to do when petrified in this way is to read this article from The Onion because it is true and on topic and funny, and it’s hard to be afraid while you’re laughing. The second is to consider surrendering, which may initially kick the fear up a notch. I tend to picture my post-surrender life as oppressive, but we’re raising the white flag not to an enemy but to a God who loves us, a God we can entrust with our failures without dreading abandonment, a God who gives life and freedom.

A little anxiety might be reasonable, though, because with surrender comes greater vulnerability. God doesn’t suddenly transform us into the faultless person we’ve always known we could be. Instead we are opened more and more to our own shortcomings, to our and others’ humanity. We let go of needing to appear on top of it and paradoxically find that, even in the midst of failure, we are much more than OK—we are loved.

Profound Gratitude and Deep Joy

Sometimes it is hard to get here. OK, it is almost always hard to get here. By here I mean mentally in the same place that our feet touch the Earth, where the oxygen that we’re breathing actually floats—or whatever oxygen does.

On my way to work yesterday, the interconnected miracle of it all announced itself. A day had passed, and everything that supported my life and made the ride to work beautiful still existed. Soil still anchored the trees. The grass still covered the hillsides (I know, I know, but it’s California—what can I say?). The ocean hadn’t moved and neither had the freeway. “The sky gathered again/And the sun grew round that very day,” as Dylan Thomas writes in “Fern Hill.”

When I checked my email, a friend had written, “Have a wonder-filled day of it!” Yes! Why not? Sounded like a good idea.

And then I forgot. I got caught up in doing things and didn’t do them with great focus or productivity. When I notice that not many items have been checked off the list, I tend to freak out a little. This is rarely a helpful response.

I used to not know I was freaking out. It appeared to me as trying to buckle down and concentrate. I’m beginning to think that we spend vast swaths of our lives being afraid and not knowing it.

There is more than enough fear to go around right now, but if we respond with joy and gratitude, we can help relieve some of that fear. True joy won’t come through ignoring the difficult things happening in every life. It can come when we pause and wonder at having oxygen to breathe, lungs that work, rain, and electric green hillsides.

I’m always tempted to think that these things are not enough, but they are literally life. If we can cultivate profound gratitude and deep joy for that life, our actions will be what’s needed. These actions may or may not have the desired outcome. Our exterior circumstances may become more difficult. But what we’re creating together now on this Earth is bigger than our individual circumstances, and when we can see it, we will know that it is exquisite.

Evil Queens and Open Hearts

This whole opening my heart thing has turned out to be really scary, so I’ve been avoiding it for the past few weeks. My favorite escape has been binge watching the TV show Once Upon a Time. Luckily, I’m almost done with the third and final season on Netflix, though finishing it will provide only temporary salvation—there’s a new season coming soon.

The show is nominally about fairy tale characters who get stuck in Maine because of a curse, but really it’s about abandonment, love, and forgiveness. What I’ve learned so far is that emotionally wounded fairy tale characters protect their hearts by not letting other fairy tale characters love them. Or by removing their hearts and sticking them in boxes. Though we non-magic types don’t have the latter option, I suspect we share the former trait.

What’s so risky about letting others love us? Clearly, when you let someone love you and love that person in return, the evil villain will have power over you because you don’t want to see that person hurt. Or, if you’re not being threatened by an evil villain, you might be terrified by—I might be terrified by—the transformative power of love.

Transformation is a tricky thing because we don’t control it. We don’t know where we’re going to end up when we start down the road. Two of the most evil characters in the show turn into heroes because of love. While that sounds like a good thing, that’s a pretty profound identity change to navigate. Who are you if you’re not who you’ve always told yourself you are?

So protecting one’s heart is, on the one hand, a completely rational thing to do. The problem is, at least on the show, the characters who do that end up miserable, lonely, and rather destructive toward those around them. I think that result probably occurs on Earth as well as in the Enchanted Forest.

But if we do choose to open our hearts, we might find ourselves happy, though more likely at a beginning than an ending.

Of Otters, Kayaks and Mortality

When I go sea kayaking with my dad, I spend a good amount of time thinking I am going to die. Never mind that he refuses to take me anywhere except protected bays.

Dad once told me a story of some unfortunate couple in a small craft getting creamed by a tanker. I translated this to all boats with motors simultaneously will not notice and are gunning for all small, oar or paddle-driven boats. If you think those psychos in their outboard-powered death machines cannot both ignore and aim for something at the same time, you are not using your imagination (see post on fretting).

sea otterThis time, however, another threat presented itself. We were heading out toward the breakwater, that is, more than 100 yards from shore. Though still protected, it appeared that we would come close enough to the open ocean that it would insist on pulling me out to a watery grave.

A boat did, of course, try to run me over on the way out, by which I mean, I paddled in front of it while it was close enough to be visible. After this near-death encounter, Dad instructed me to stay away from the towering, foot-high breakers with the apparently clear-to-him instructions, “Don’t go where they are.” Breakers tend to separate me from my kayak.

Then the day improved dramatically. Aside from my not dying, I saw a sea otter floating nearby. As I approached, he flipped off his back and stuck just his head out of the water, watching until I reached some invisible line at which point he dove underwater and resurfaced a short distance away.

Sea otters are the Spinal Tap of cuteness—eleven on a scale of one to ten. Bobbing on the water only a few dozen yards from the poster animal for adorable, I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Braving the boats and the tides suddenly felt completely worthwhile. Doing things that frighten us doesn’t always pay off this well, but it often does. It’s helpful to remember that after the unpleasant, scary part, the universe might throw in some otters.