When we experience fear, that is not a time when we would probably lounge about, smelling the roses, appreciating our blessings, savoring our relationships, and thinking positively, expansively about the future.

If fear is a set of physical sensations – muscles trembling, heart racing, hair standing on end – it is also a style of thinking that becomes more narrow, less open to subtlety, less curious, less trusting, less hopeful.

If we lived in a primordial jungle, and if we only had a minimal concept of “self,” and if our capacity for imagination were less active and powerful, then fear itself would be a simpler thing. We would feel fear only in response to physical threats – a tiger rushing toward us. The consequent change in the style of our thinking – the increased narrowness and urgency – the “tunnel vision,” so to speak – would help us focus on escaping the tiger.

As modern humans in a modern world, we still feel fear in response to physical threats, but we also feel fear in response to ether – pure thought, with no material form attached. Isn’t that remarkable? We can be afraid of something that we can’t physically point to and show anyone where it is.

Our self-concept is elaborate – we have an ego that includes but extends far beyond the physical self. We can feel fear if an idea threatens this ego – which is itself a mental construct, a set of ideas – just as if there were a physical thing that threatened our own physical self. A thought that challenges another thought can still terrify us like a charging tiger.

So we can sit down in a well-furnished room, being well-rested and well-fed, being free to come and go, free to lounge about and do nothing whatsoever, and as we do that nothing, we can still feel fear. We can watch a movie and feel fear. We can have a conversation and feel fear. We can go to sleep and have a nightmare. As far as our reality extends beyond the physical, into the world of imagination, fear can invade that space anytime.

But when fear arrives, we might have little awareness that we are in fact afraid, and we might have no understanding of why we would be afraid. When our ego is threatened by a particular idea, the threat itself might be invisible to our conscious mind. We might not see what part of our self-concept is threatened and we might not fathom why the offending idea would even be a threat to it. As we navigate the world, we can be the victim of inscrutable, unintelligible fear – fear that still has a cause but one which we do not perceive and so cannot reason about.

But when we feel fear in response to a specific idea – a possibility that we see before us – what happens next? What would happen if a magician put a concept in your mind, simply by describing it, and then waved a wand that made you less likely to see alternate possibilities, less open-minded, more agitated and so less inclined toward careful, dispassionate analysis? The concept that had been put there moments before the waving of the wand could turn from a possibility into a conviction. Fear is that wand. 

When an idea makes us afraid, it gains weight, it transforms from an abstraction into an experience. Our physical reaction now makes the idea feel like something. And that feeling gives the idea a kind of persistence, because once our heart has begun to race and our hair has begun to stand on end, we cannot easily force this process to stop. What might help us at this time is to realistically assess the likelihood of the outcome we fear, seeing it in the context of an infinity of other possibilities; what might help us is to reconsider how much of a threat this idea actually poses to us, and whether there something we’re clinging to that intensifies the sense of threat, something we could easily release; what might help us is to remember our strength, which means remembering not only our ability to fight but also remembering the advantages of our position, the good things we’ve had in life, the blessings bestowed upon us, including the blessing of optimism, our ability to imagine positive outcomes, and how this ability has served us.

But the nature of fear is to disrupt all of those pathways that would quiet fear. 

What happens? What happens when an idea enters the mind and causes fear, which in turn affects our thinking style, making us less able to consider alternate possibilities, all while the fear-causing idea remains seated in our field of view? What happens when fear gives us tunnel vision in such a way that the tunnel blocks out everything but the idea that caused the fear in the first place, now waiting for us at the tunnel’s end? Of course we focus more on the one possibility we are currently “seeing” in the distance and believe it even more, and this makes us ever more afraid. So we see that fear can create a cycle, where we are more likely to trust something that initially scared us. If this thought came into mind as one of many possibilities, it now becomes the only possibility we can see, so we might accept it as truth. Even if we later come to question it in calmer moments, we still retain the memory of its seeming so true.

From this, we can see the potential for co-opting fear as a tool of manipulation. If another person provides us with ideas that cause fear – and if that fear blinds us to other possibilities and makes us overly trusting of the fear-causing ideas themselves – then it will seem like this person is a source of truth. We may come to treat them as an authority even if they themselves are not threatening us. To win our respect, they need not say “I am going to come attack you if you don’t follow me.” They merely need to supply fantasies that threaten us, saying “I am going to warn you about others who will attack you, and I’ll tell you how they will do it.” It’s known that fear creates division and distrust, sabotaging cooperation – which renders a flock, or a populace less powerful – but it also creates an unflinching trust in the person who offered the fear because that person – even if a liar – comes to seem like an exemplar of truthfulness.

This dynamic can play out in our own minds, leading us to place overdue trust in the process of fear-driven ideation because that process seems to lead us towards things which we end up believing.

The process is harder to escape than it sounds, because sometimes fears are well-founded – and sometimes purveyors of fear can offer truth mixed in with fiction, in a proportion that may be difficult to know.

We cannot discount in a blanket way, any and every conclusion which comes from fear, or which causes fear, nor should we push ourselves to confront every fear and to bravely do everything that makes us afraid, because some of those things make us afraid for good reason. Sometimes we must make a choice about which fears to accept and which fears to fight.

But the best time to comb through our fears and decide how to respond to them is not when we are paralyzed by fear itself. If we’re lucky enough in our lives to have the opportunity and the wisdom to consciously reflect on our fears – bringing intention to the way we engage with them – we should take a moment to do something first, to set the stage for this reflection. We should take a moment to connect with our hearts as a first step, so that the decisions we make regarding fear can be guided not by fear itself, but by love and hope. ■

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