You have to love this oft-repeated horror flick scene: Our hapless hero or heroine is lying in bed when they hear a noise and feel driven to go out looking for the unknown menace, even if that means entering a dank basement or a cobwebbed attic. Of course, the lights don’t work, and they have to use a flashlight or candle to light their way through the gloom, and this only adds to the sense of dread.
None of it makes any sense, but then, it isn’t meant to; the scene has been set up to fill us with the thrill of intense fear, something we’re willing to pay to experience vicariously.
Why Be Afraid?
But why is fear even there inside us (except to be exploited by the movie industry)? Sure, we hear about those rare instances when someone faced with imminent danger instantly and instinctively does the right thing and saves the day. But when most of us are afraid we either get aggressive or we let reason fly out the window, doing or saying things that don’t help at all. Worse, fear sometimes paralyzes us just when we need to be getting out of the way.
The fight-or-flight response may have helped our ancestors survive wild animal attacks, but it’s a bit of a liability nowadays. (The same might be said for the ability to gain weight and keep it on; this might have kept our forebears from starving, but in the age of refrigeration, factories, and mass transport it’s rather a bother.) We need to know how to keep ourselves safe, but swift running and skilled combat are no longer of great advantage, especially when we fear losing a job, a cherished loved one, a good reputation, a sense of power, or a big chunk of change.
These latter, milder, low-lying but long-term fears are what create much of our stress, pushing us to fret our way though reams of pointless tasks to secure whatever we think matters. This fear-based stress takes a big toll on our health, our relationships, and our careers.
The Right Use of Fear
Stress isn’t the only way chronic fear effects us in a negative way. There’s also the drawback pointed out by Tacitus in the quote at the start: A desire for safety very often restrains us from moving to the next stage in our lives.
Fear holds you back. For example, perhaps your career would actually advance if you had the courage to speak up a little more, blow the whistle, ask for a promotion, or stop grabbing the dirty end of the stick every time it was handed to you. Maybe your health might improve if you were brave enough to change a few lifestyle habits. Perhaps your relationships would grow stronger if you could be more open about your feelings. And your social life might improve once you start seeing strangers as fellow travelers instead of threats to your well-being.
There’s a special kind of fear (what Tacitus calls “a desire for safety”) that can actually stand between you and your highest goals. When you refuse to confront this fear, instead choosing the comfort of the familiar, you stand to lose big. When you accept the fear of change and allow yourself to endure it patiently, you get to move on to the promised land. How do you make this special kind of fear work for you and not against you? It’s simple: submit to becoming a chrysalis.
Being a Chrysalis
Imagine you’re a nice fat caterpillar. You’ve already shed your hide several times, so you’re used to regeneration, which means saying good-bye to something old while welcoming in something new (a change of skin). But what you’re about to experience will be so radical that it’s positively terrifying: you’re going to change from a cute, chubby little creature with stubby legs into a glorious flying splendor. Everything about your soft little leaf-bound body is going to change inside the chrysalis.
As you experience metamorphosis you’re going to be scared. You’ll know that every last bit of you is turning into something else. There’s nothing you can do about it but accept the fear, resting quietly in it and trusting nature’s promise.
Caterpillars don’t have a choice in whether or not they’ll turn into winged beauties. The Source of All Life in its wisdom decreed it as their destiny. But we humans can choose whether or not we’ll become what we were meant to be. When we sense changes occurring within us or hear life calling us to something more, we can move forward, through the fear, or retreat into our comfortable routines. Many who’ve achieved greatness have been almost forced to do so because their lives provided little comfort to retreat into. Yet for every Louis Armstrong who’s accepted the fear of change and moved forward there’ve been scads of orphaned children who’ve resigned themselves to lives of petty crime or wage slavery. Why? To avoid the greater terror of radical change.
The fear of change is one you need to push through. You’ll feel it as a tight sensation in your stomach, or even a dull ache. You may feel shaky, unsteady. You may be emotionally sensitive. But don’t call it a broken heart, grief, or martyrdom. Don’t deny it or try to repress it. Admitting that this is no more than a fear of change and simply riding it out is your ticket to the next stage of your own development. Love this fear and be attentive to it, remembering that the knot in your stomach is your power rising as your fear subsides.
As you’re coming up to Halloween think of what your best self might look like as a costume. Wonder Woman? Pegasus? Paul Bunyan? Melinda Gates? The Dalai Lama? Ella Fitzgerald? Go for it. And, yes, embrace the fear.