Fear and courage: The greatest power is fear

Come together here
Gather in this place of love and strength
As we move forward together though, we still struggle, held back by fears that constrain us
By this light, may the tormenting terrors be vanquished
May our hearts be freed to shine bright
Our courageous love lighting our lives
And our world



See Paris First by M. Truman Cooper

Suppose that what you fear could be trapped, and held in Paris.
Then you would have the courage to go everywhere in the world.
All the directions of the compass open to you,
except the degrees east or west of true north that lead to Paris.
Still, you wouldn’t dare put your toes smack dab on the city limit line.
You’re not really willing to stand on a mountainside miles away
and watch the Paris lights come up at night.
Just to be on the safe side you decide to stay completely out of France.
But then danger seems too close even to those boundaries,
and you feel the timid part of you covering the whole globe again.
You need the kind of friend who learns your secret and says,
"See Paris first."


Fear of the Inexplicable, by Rainer Maria Rilke

[F]ear of the inexplicable has not [only] impoverished the existence of the individual; the relationship between one human being and another has also been cramped by it, as though it had been lifted out of the riverbed of endless possibilities and set down in a fallow spot on the bank, to which nothing happens. 

For it is not inertia alone that is responsible for human relationships repeating themselves from case to case, indescribably monotonous and unrenewed: it is shyness before any sort of new, unforeseeable experience with which one does not think oneself able to cope.

But only someone who is ready for everything, who excludes nothing, not even the most enigmatical, will live the relation to another as something alive and will himself draw exhaustively from his own existence. 

For if we think of this existence of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it appears evident that most people learn to know only a corner of their room, a place by the window, a strip of floor on which they walk up and down. Thus they have a certain security. And yet that dangerous insecurity is so much more human which drives the prisoners in Poe's stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their abode.

We, however, are not prisoners. No traps or snares are set about us, and there is nothing which should intimidate or worry us. We are set down in life as in the element to which we best correspond, and over and above this we have through thousands of years of accommodation become so like this life, that when we hold still we are, through a happy mimicry, scarcely to be distinguished from all that surrounds us. 

We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful. 


I Know this rose will open

I know this rose will open
I know my fear will burn away
I know my heart will unfurl its wings
I know this rose will open

Message by Andy Pakula

The first time I had to give a talk was in graduate school. I was terrified. Absolutely terrified. 
There was a regular series where grad students and other researchers in the biology department would present seminars in front of the whole department. The department included hundreds of people - hundreds of super-smart people - technicians, students, post-docs, and faculty. And several of those faculty were Nobel prize winners.

So, there I was… insecure graduate student feeling not at all capable, not at all equal to most of my colleagues, not at all successful in my research, and not at all feeling like I knew what I needed to know to do this.

Not to mention the general, almost universal fear of public speaking.

I must have spent months preparing for the talk - and preparing means mostly worrying, procrastinating, and worrying some more.

The head of my lab told his young daughter that I was afraid and then she - this little five year old - took delight in tormenting me! She would find me in the lab and tease me. She loved to watch me squirm.

I was a wreck.

I got some beta-blockers somewhere to try to stop the shaking and sweating, but I just got more frightened. Now I could worry about the talk AND the effects of beta-blockers.

So, you’d like to hear that I overcame my fear, gave my talk, and amid the thunderous applause, a Nobel Laureate rose to give me his golden prize medal.

It didn’t happen. I stumbled through the talk, which I had memorized. I forgot a big chunk of it along the way…  I’m sure that everyone could see I was terrified. But I survived. No medals. No thunderous applause. But there was survival. Good enough to make me think I wouldn’t die if I tried again some time.

Several years later, I led my first Sunday service. It was in a Unitarian Universalist congregation - the same one where I first found something like what we have here - a justice-seeking community of depth, purpose, and love without the aspects of traditional religion that I can’t tolerate.

This time, I stood in front of nearly 200 people who had heard great, professional ministers speak and who - you know - were not shy about saying what they thought!

It was easier than my Biology department seminar… 

But it wasn’t easy. I was definitely afraid. Afraid that people would not like it - that they’d see through me - that they’d think what I was saying was simplistic, obvious, overly sentimental or who knows what… Basically, I was afraid that they wouldn’t like me.

Fear. Fears. No shortage of fears.

Fear is something that we all feel. In fact, it’s a hard-wired response in our brains and the brains of most other animals. It’s pretty easy to understand how it got that way. Think of two early mammals, one of which gets frightened easily and the other doesn’t. A predator suddenly appears.

One runs and one becomes lunch. The individuals with genes that coded for the fear response get away, live longer, have more offspring, and fearful genes spread throughout the population. And they are passed down from generation to generation so that we carry them to this day.
Fear is not a failing and it’s not a flaw. Fear is part of the equipment that allowed us to survive in prehistory and still helps us today. There are some people with brain damage that inhibits their fear response. They live very interesting lives but often get themselves into serious trouble.

One of the interesting things about our inbuilt fear responses is that they can be very wrong about the size of various dangers. Many many people are afraid of spiders and snakes. Those were real dangers when our distant ancestors were evolving.

Today, many more people are killed by cars and cigarette smoking than by spiders and snakes. And yet, you don’t see too many people screaming when they see a BMW or a pack of fags.
Fear is a natural and useful part of our reactions, but it is not always right. It overreacts to spiders and under reacts to cars.

When we feel fear, our bodies react as though our lives are in danger. We sweat, we shake, our blood goes to our muscles to prepare us for fight or flight - or perhaps we freeze.
Standing in front of the biology department, my life was not in danger. My body thought that it was.

And this very basic, natural, reaction of fear is behind much of what we find so terrible and unexplainable about human behaviour. And that judgement is not just for others but for ourselves. 

When we ask ‘why did he act that way?’ or ‘how can they think that?’ or ‘what is wrong with me that I would do such a thing?’, the answer is often tied up with fear.

And recognising this is not a small thing. Seeing the role of fear in human behaviour can help us understand ourselves and it can help us have compassion for others.

You know that a large part of the US population seems to think that having a gun is one of their inalienable human rights. Guns kill as many people in the US as car accidents. Gun deaths are the third leading cause of death in men aged 15 to 29. After all the school shootings and the screaming weeping parents and the tragic multiple shootings in other places, you would think the whole country would oppose gun ownership - or at least make it much harder to get a gun. How can anyone possibly think it should be easy to get a gun?

The answer, obviously, is fear.

There is a large segment of the American population that is terribly afraid. They’re afraid of liberals. They’re afraid of people who are different from them and afraid that those other people are going to come to where they are and harm them and their families. They imagine people in cities as lawless and wild and ferociously violent. They fear these others. 

Importantly, this frightened segment of the American public lacks faith that the government will protect them.

And so, their fear is only eased by feeling that they can protect themselves from the marauders from the city. And that means guns. 

They want guns, not because they are bad, but because they are afraid. This is obviously not true of everyone, but it’s true of enough people that it makes me think differently. It reminds me that getting rid of guns may require making people feel safe in some other way. Taking away their guns will only reinforce their frightened narrative.

Another example is what we call greed. I know some wealthy people. They have more money than they could possibly need and most of them don’t spend it ostentatiously. They don’t seek luxury.

For them, money buys security. It wards off fear. They fear being destitute. They fear losing their livelihood due to a serious illness. They fear their children struggling. And having millions in the bank provides safety. They are not evil. They are not thoughtless. They are afraid. And income inequality will always be harder to address until that fear is addressed in some way.

Brexit is about fear.

Trump is about fear.

The right wing movements that threaten Europe are about fear.

Most war is about fear.

The desire for power is about fear.

And for ourselves, fear, as we’ve talked about for the past two months, can stop us cold. It can keep us from doing what will bring us happiness. It can keep us from being who we want to be in the world.

The Buddhist teacher Tara Brach puts it like this:
‘The emotion of fear often works overtime. Even when there is no immediate threat, our body may remain tight and on guard, our mind narrowed to focus on what might go wrong. When this happens, fear is no longer functioning to secure our survival. We are caught in the trance of fear and our moment-to-moment experience becomes bound in reactivity. We spend our time and energy defending our life rather than living it fully.’

Fear harms us and it harms others. It prevents us engaging in the deep connections that give meaning to our lives and the larger work that gives life purpose.

And so we expose fear behind the curtain of many of the mysteries of life - we find fear standing between us and the lives we want for ourselves and others. 

Just as M. Truman Cooper describes fear expanding from containment in Paris to fill the whole globe, the opposite can also be true. Fear - once exposed and identified - can be cut down to size.

After that first Sunday service, there was another and another and another - now nearly five hundred. And what I have found about fears is well known to many of us. We can test our fears and, if we find that fear has overblown the danger, it is automatically lessened.

I may get a bit anxious each week when message-writing comes around, but I’m sure it won’t kill me. I’m pretty sure that you won’t love me less if I give a bad one from time to time. I’ve touched spiders and snakes. I try to avoid heights but I can deal with it. 

As we learn and test our fears, we can shrink them and make room for our lives. 

Let us work to reduce fear for all and make room for justice - make room for equality - make room for understanding - let us make room for love.

The world is not without its dangers
And one of those dangers is fear itself
It can keep us from living wholly
It can keep us from loving boldly
It can keep us from the world we dream of
Let us put fear in its place
And face our lives with new hope and new determination
As we move into a brighter tomorrow for all