The masters of Kabala teach that fear is not a choice in solving difficult situations; rather, to the contrary, it feeds and sustains them. They teach us to be cautious in warning ourselves of possible difficulties. They suggest that, if the fear serves to keep us sufficiently alert, it be accepted as an ally and teacher, and it be learned from. Fears are as big as we permit them to become. Fear in itself has no power; however, when we identify with it, we make it real. Although it is not possible to avoid fears, as they form part of the framework of life, connecting ourselves with the values of the spirit helps us to perceive the immense possibilities of realization that lie above irrational fears. When we govern ourselves by love, hope and confidence, we can obtain extraordinary physical, emotional and spiritual benefits. These serve as a shield, that ozone layer of terrestrial atmosphere, against the damaging rays of apathy and indifference.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslow taught that “this entire world is a narrow bridge, and the principal thing is not to be afraid.” This saying has been popularised in Israel in recent days by a lovely song. Perhaps, the rabbi is suggesting that to cross the bridge requires valour, clawing one’s way across with energy. Doing it with a touch of caution is prudent, but if the person allows himself to be taken over by fears of his own making, he will never arrive at the other side.
The bridge symbolizes the passage from one point to another, a progressive walking forward, in which there is neither stability nor security. It is a situation that understandably creates anxiety and incertitude. The bridge is, symbolically, like the desert that must be crossed on the road towards our realisation. On this crossing the march must be constant; there is no place for tranquil repose. Life is precarious and unpredictable – the secret is not to find a safe place but rather to advance without fear.
“Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.” – George Addair
Abraham Maslov, who was one of the founders and principal exponent of humanist psychology, developed the concept of the “Jonah Complex,” to refer to persons whose fear makes them flee from their own talents and success, inhibiting them from realising their full potential.
Do you recall the story of Jonah and the whale? The Bible tells of a prophet named Jonah, who had been sent by God to preach to the people of Nineveh, the capital of Syria, to persuade them to repent of their evil; otherwise, their city would be destroyed. Jonah refuses to obey and runs in the opposite direction, embarking for Tarshish.
God prepares a great whale to swallow Jonah. During three days inside the belly of the whale, Jonah prays, after which God orders the whale to vomit him out.
After this, Jonah receives for the second time the word of God, to go preach to the people of Nineveh. After receiving Jonah’s warning, “Within 40 days Nineveh shall be destroyed,” the city’s ruler orders the entire population to fast. Upon seeing the repentance of the people of Nineveh, God backs down, and does not punish the city.
Upon beholding God’s mercy, Jonah realises his prophecy will not come to pass. His vision is clouded and he departs the city in disgust. God censures him for his lack of compassion toward the many thousands of people and animals of Nineveh.
We do not know if Jonah learned the lesson, but his story leaves us thinking about the fear of being and assuming the full stature of which one is capable.
From the psychological perspective of Maslow, Jonah represents someone who could have made himself into a great prophet, but was afraid of his own greatness and closed himself within the narrow world of his “ego.”
Have we not encountered persons of talent, who held forth the promise of great personal and professional achievements, who notwithstanding were left half way down their path, without daring to realise their full potential?
The paradigm of Jonah is the antithesis of the self-realised man, who aims very high in his goals and aspirations, making his convictions prevail over his fears. “One can choose between taking refuge in safety or advancing and growing. Growth must be chosen time and time again. Fear must be overcome each and every time,” says Abraham Maslow.
When we find ourselves before a situation that induces fear and anxiety, our bodies undergo a series of changes: the heart beats faster to send blood to the extremities and brain; our pupils dilate; and three hormones are produced – adrenaline, noradrenaline, and corticosteroids, also called the fear hormones. The corticosteroids impede the formation of connections among our neurons, the synapses, which we know to be the basis of creativity. Thus, it is biologically impossible for a person to develop to his full capacity in a situation of constant fear; to the contrary, fear paralyzes and incapacitates.
Fears arise from different sources. It is interesting to become conscious of them, to gather them up and examine them to determine whether are not they are present.
In the case of persistent fears or severe phobias, good therapy is undoubtedly indicated. Fear is a powerful emotion that rests upon frequently encountered negative emotions such as arrogance and low self-esteem.
From the depths of psychology, we learn that in order to avoid doing battle with our fears, we often use defence mechanisms such as denial, rationalisation and projection, among the most habitual. These mechanisms generally block our growth and affect our vital process. Where fear dominates, most experiences are negative and infused with pessimism.
In many cases the fears trace back to childhood, since logically parents try to do everything possible to protect their children. But often, overprotecting them, all they do is inoculate their children with fear and insecurity:
“No one arrives at the summit accompanied by fear.” Publilius Syrus.
A great authority on the subject, Susan Jeffers, comments in this regard that she never heard a mother call out to her child on his way to school, “Run many risks today, my dear.” More probably she would say, “Be careful, my child.” Children learn to be afraid of new things, the unknown and all for which they have no explanation. They think that the past is a good source of explanation for all that may occur in the present and the future, and they confuse interpretations with facts. They learn behaviour and then they continue to use it automatically, even though circumstances may be different and they may have many more resources than before. They see themselves as victims at the mercy of happenstance, forgetting their capacity to respond to the situation face to face. While it is not always feasible to alter objective circumstances, it is generally possible to act on the effects that events have on them, at various levels.
Sometimes we use our fears to justify that it’s impossible for use to carry through on certain things. We choose to be afraid in order not to stray from our comfort zone. And, we hate to admit it because we think that to be afraid is bad, a sign of weakness. It’s time to step back and find out the reasons for this fear.
Is it in fact a justification or a mere excuse for not trying?
Common phrases we are used to hearing:
And if I’m too old to do something new?
And if it takes too long?
And if people make fun of me?
Any of these generates worry and anxiety. Worry and fear are emotions that, in the words of Humberto Maturana, “constrict vision.” They provoke an uncomfortable sensation, as if projecting a great shadow; they are the factor that holds us back and weakens us, that robs us of our capacity to see possibilities of growth, and our self-confidence. They tend to remain and run in circles.
“Fear is my most faithful companion; it has never tricked me into going with another.” Woody Allen
A Sufi tale shows how fear affects our behaviour and lives. A long caravan of camels was advancing through the desert till it arrived at an oasis and the men decided to spend the night there. The guides and camels were tired and craved sleep, but when the moment came to tie up the animals, the guides realised that they were one post short. All the camels were duly tied up, except one. No one wanted to stay up all night watching the animal, but at the same time, they didn’t want to lose it either. After much thought, one of the men had an idea. He went up to the camel, took the reins, and went through all the motions of tying the animal to an imaginary post. Afterwards, the camel sat down, convinced that it was strongly secured, and they all went to rest. The next morning, they untied the camels and prepared them to continue the journey. There was one camel, however, that didn’t want to stand up. The guides prodded him, but he wouldn’t move. Finally, one of the men understood the reason behind the camel’s obstinacy. He stood up before the imaginary post and made all the motions normally made in untying the rope to release the animal. Immediately afterwards, the camel rose on its legs without the slightest hesitation, thinking it was newly freed.
How many of us tie ourselves up in imaginary, illusory bindings that obstruct and impede us from realising goals and dreams? When we allow fear to strike the pace, we resemble those wild animals in Africa that are trapped in sacks of cloth, from which they can’t untie themselves, as they feel like hermetically sealed prisons. In the same way, when we are governed by fear, we are imprisoned and confined within defensive and paralysing cages. This sensation is manifested in the fear to be different, to express ideas considered “incorrect,” to love and be wounded and, in general, of situations that are not familiar to us. But we know through experience that to remain immobilised by fear and negativity can have disastrous results in terms of our personal development.
“Only those who risk going too far can know how far they can go.” T.S. Eliot
There are no magic formulas for growing and unfolding our potential without anxiousness or fears. This process involves daring and risk taking. And it is known that the greatest risk is not taking one. Do we not fail more times for not trying than for trying to do more?
The person who goes the farthest is, without doubt, the one who develops an optimistic focus on life. We should recall that the word optimism comes from the Latin optimus, which means the best. The optimist is someone who sets his sights on the best and trusts in achieving it.
In reality, the so-called “comfort zone” can turn into a mortal trap, insofar as we are often inclined to shackle ourselves rather than initiate an action that could propel us toward a healthier and satisfactory choice. This is how lost opportunities lamentably multiply, with the consequent feeling of failure, depression and anxiety.
It also is interesting to take note of the etymology of the word “opportunity,” from the Latin oportunitas that originates in the world of navigation: “op,” before, and “portus,” port. After a long time at high seas, the ship is finally arriving to the port, the place that represents a clear objective and possibilities of realisation.
A well-known parable recounts how one day a pilgrim encountered the Plague and asked it here it was going: “To Baghdad,” it answered, “to kill five thousand persons.”
One week passed, and when the pilgrim once again encountered the Plague, that was returning from its trip, he called out to it indignantly:
“You told me that you were going to kill five thousand persons, and you killed fifty thousand!”
“No,” replied the Plague, “I killed only five thousand, the rest died of fear.”
“Our fears often create what we fear. That which you evade, you invite,” suggests Sam Keen. “What I fear, is what comes to me,” said Job.
It is important to take into account that only a minimal percentage of our preoccupations come true, so why despair and afflict oneself out of all proportion?”
As fear is a part of our defence mechanisms and thus virtually inevitable, what can be done so as not to install it within ourselves as an undesirable guest that acts like the owner of the house?
“The cave in which you fear to enter contains the treasure which you are seeking.” Joseph Campbell.
The great Argentine writer Julio Cortázar describes fantastically in the tale “The taken house” this process of letting oneself be dominated by unfounded fears. Through the narration by one of the protagonists is told the story of two siblings (one brother and one sister) who have always remained united in a symbiotic relationship, in a very old colonial house, to whose care and maintenance they have devoted their lives. Neither of the two has married under the pretext of taking care of the house, and they dislike the idea that one day, when they die, distant cousins will sell it to enrich themselves. After a detailed description of the house and the meticulous customs of the inhabitants, we find the heart of the story: because of strange sounds (whispers, the movement of a chair…) these two siblings have to abandon progressively parts of the ugly old mansion which are taken by the presumed intruders. The incursions of the latter end up by taking the entire house and the siblings have to leave, tossing the key into the sewer so that no unfortunate thief should enter and find himself in the possessed house.
Who are those intruders? The author never makes this clear. Both protagonists experience the situation as if nothing were happening; apparently they do not feel startled, they accept the appropriation of the house by the unknown as something normal and irremediable. In any case, what is surprising is the ease and resignation with which the two siblings leave the house, their house, the house that they have been maintaining together and to which they have dedicated so much time, without even trying to resist.
Perhaps the story suggests that there are persons who due to fears, indolence or insecurity, close themselves up inside their minds and fall prisoners to strange thoughts that, though phantasms, immobilise them and inhibit a liberating exit.
“Who lives in fear shall never live free.” Horace
Excerpt of Vivir con Mayúscula
Trad. Edith Scott