Fear Shapes Our Lives

Nine people gathered in a circle to study their sacred scripture last week were murdered in Charleston, South Carolina. There are many ways to understand this horrifying event, as we’ve seen in commentaries from across the nation and around the world: tragedy, the act of yet another mentally-ill young white gunman, another reason for new gun control legislation, or a stunning reminder of the deep structures of racism in the US, just to name a few. A Greek student of mine wrote me from Athens that night, bewildered by the violence, and asked if there is a civil war between blacks and whites in America. The answer to that is a firm No, of course, because the violent attacks are almost exclusively white-on-black. But it is easy to understand why people around the globe would see the violence in America as a sign of a civil war. The sad truth is that these murderous impulses are rooted in our unfinished and undigested civil war of 150 years ago and the systems of slavery which preceded it.

One wonders, how can old historical practices and events like that continue to shape today’s American society and politics, after all these years? Part of the answer is our fear: how we experience fear, how fear overrides evidence and obliterates thinking, how we help create fear in ourselves and others, and how our fears shape our most basic understanding of ourselves and our world.

There are two kinds of fear, as the teacher Manjushri explains in my new book, What in the World Is Going On? Wisdom Teachings for Our Time. The first kind, communicative fear, we share with many other species; it gives us information about an immediate danger in our environment which requires a response: flight or fight, in most cases. This superb mechanism, sensitive to a “tiger in the grass,” vastly enhances our survival, and we can only be grateful for it. The second type, imaginative fear, however, is created in and by our own minds. It may or may not be grounded in reality and may have little connection with any plausible threat to our survival. Yet it can just as powerfully shape our perceptions and our behavior, over and over, until it becomes an unexamined dimension of our supposed reality. Because it is wound so tightly with human intellect and human imagination, it is much more difficult to trace its roots, and it is a delicate process to uncover those deeply rooted fears and begin the long and hard work of dissolving them.

The steps of this process, however, are simple and straightforward. First, identify the fear lurking deep in one’s heart and mind. Give it a name, and as best you can, bring it up to the surface. Then, greet it with kindness and understanding, over and over, day after day, until it slowly dissolves. It will lose its power to trigger a sense of danger, to initiate a counter-attack, and to escalate a situation all out of proportion to its actual size and heft in the world. You will be rewarded with much more ease, both in your own life and in your surroundings. And it will surely reduce the violence in your community and world, as you no longer fuel it with your own fearfulness. It may seem too small to make a difference, but truly, it is probably the best way to begin to heal the generations of fear and violence in the United States.

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