Fear: Dictator Or Compass – The Choice is Yours

I must not fear

Fear is the mind killer

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration

I will face my fear

I will permit it to pass over me and through me

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing

Only I will remain

– Dune, Frank Herbert

Fear rules us all.

It is perhaps the most common and relate-able feeling among humans. Tragically, not every human feels joy, or love…but everyone knows fear.

It’s ancestral, it’s passed down from parent to child, and if you don’t grab it, name it, and chain that asshole to a radiator in your basement, it will rule everything you do, and everything your children do (or anyone you wield influence over), maybe for generations.  Your fears wield terrifying power, but you can wield that power for your own benefit and growth. This is what I’ve learned.

The above quote, The Litany Against Fear, from one of my favorite books of all time (if you haven’t read Dune, stop reading this blog and go fix that), beautifully describes the fear paradox. You must face it, and only when you truly face it, can you move beyond it.

It was around middle school that I started feeling really afraid, all the time. I didn’t know that’s what it was, I just withdrew inward, and had very little drive to explore, to express curiosity, or pursue things or people that interested me.

A monstrous worm erupts from a sandy background, screaming its hungry maw toward a stoic warrior, armed only with a spear.
I would need more than a cool poem to face that thing, tbh. Art by Furio Tedeschi.

My depression set in during high school. There were several social and environmental issues contributing to it, and those issues took root. They grew with me, a vipers nest crawling up me like ivy up a crumbling trellis. I was so used to feeling like shit, to doubting myself, to being afraid, that I mistook my inner and outer states to be defaults I had no control over.

My teen years and early twenties were really rough. Intermittent depression, and self medication through heavy drinking and chain-smoking characterized 2009-2012. The short version is, I felt like I was in free-fall, and I realized that my life was just going to keep getting worse if I didn’t assert violent control over SOMETHING. That something was my body, then it was my work and social environment. I started working out, I quit my bar job and started working in a gym and learning to be a personal trainer (there was a time I was so afraid and insecure I didn’t think I had what it took to even TRY to be a trainer. Hilarious and tragic).

I made most of my choices based on one thing:

What am I afraid of?

I let that question lead me.  

“Habit will be your champion. When you train the mind to think one way and one way only, when you refuse to allow it to think in another, that will produce great strength in battle.”  – Gates of Fire

Gates of Fire is another one of my favorite books of all time. The entire book is essentially an examination of how some of the bravest and craziest warriors to ever walk the planet got to be as badass as they were (it is a fictional account of the battle of Thermopylae by the famous three hundred Spartans). Fear is a central theme of the book, and every time I re-read Gates of Fire, I understand fear a little better, and I understand how it affects me and my actions. I took the lesson in the above quote to heart. This has become one of my most closely held beliefs. Routine can save us, and that applies to how and what we think about. 

So, why does fear lead us? Isn’t it just an over-active expression of our survival instinct? YES. Exactly, and that’s why it’s a such a good compass. My theory is that yes, our highly evolved brains, which served us well for thousands of years of living in the wild, developed finely tuned survival instincts. And now, in our relatively safe, modern world, where most of the dangers don’t seem apparent, that fear instinct latches onto whatever it can.

Our egos, the Driver of our day to day activities for the most part, assumes a lot of command in this day and age, perhaps more than it did in the early eras of our development as a species. The ego leads the show, and thus, to my experience, dominates the fear instinct too. Because the ego is calling the shots, it looks not for what is actually threatening (your “instincts” or intuition often take over that role, it seems to me), but what threatens IT and its idea of itself.

Gerard Butler and other actors stand in formation scantily clad as Spartans in the film 300
I didn’t watch 300 for the historical accuracy

Our entire organism is an efficiency machine, and no matter how poorly your ego developed, no matter how short-tempered, assumptive, self-involved, scared etc, it believes itself to be the perfect governor of our whole being, and thus ANYTHING that threatens its current state is considered a threat. This is, of course, false.

The ego is IMPORTANT and I don’t think you should “Kill it;” that’s a baby with the bathwater situation. The ego can serve important functions, it just gets out of hand a little, and we need to be able to observe and distinguish an “ego” thought from a valuable instinct. They can often become mixed up, to our detriment.

Back to fear: I have found that more often than not, what my ego fears is a direct pathway to something that will actually make me grow. What I’m afraid of is either an unaddressed and undealt with childhood issue, or some insecurity I developed expressing itself.

Fear is usually a clue as to why I’m staying somewhere I don’t want to be. I stayed in shitty jobs because I feared not making money and not being able to survive  (This is a big recurring fear for probably everybody, it’s so deep-seated and reinforced by many aspects of our culture, but that’s a rant for another time), I stayed in unfulfilling or destructive romantic entanglements and friendships because I was afraid of being alone (involuntary solitude is about as bad as it gets for most humans, there’s reason it’s a severe punishment in prison), I avoided social interactions I secretly craved because I was afraid of being seen as negatively as I perceived myself. It all comes back to fear, for me.

The author holds a giant lifting dumbbell to one shoulder, preparing to press it overhead with one arm.
I’m afraid of putting things over my head, so I work at it relentlessly. Photo by Scott Lloyd Photography.

What you fear is what you should pay attention to.

It has been such a reliable indicator for me of what needs to be done, improved, or achieved, that at this point it is like an internal alarm.

Afraid of talking to someone? DO IT NOW. Afraid to start a new creative venture? DO IT NOW.

Afraid of a particular weight on the bar? DO. IT. NOW. Or, soon. Embrace that terror, clasp it to your chest. Run straight at it.

Fear is the mind-killer.  Don’t let it kill yours. Name it, know it, use it, and let it lead you to victory.

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