Fear

bridge

Fear is that which destroys us from a distance and empowers us up close. – TK Coleman

Most of the personal development work I have done in the past few years has largely been a matter of overcoming my fears, or as Seth Godin says, learning to “dance with fear.” Fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of criticism—all these fears, and more, used to cripple me and prevent me from accomplishing anything.

This is because I was viewing my fears from a distance. When the sun is low and you stand far enough away from anyone, their shadow will loom menacingly. When you go up close and scrutinize that same fear, perhaps even giving it a hug or trying to talk to it, everything changes. You realize that it’s just trying to protect you, not ruin your life. You can negotiate with it and let it take you for the thrilling ride of stepping out of your comfort zone. Once you cultivate this relationship, you can live life so much more freely. The hard part is getting to that point.

I believe that we are all born with this kind of relationship towards our fears. But because of the way we’re raised, we’ve become estranged and lost the connection with our inner selves. Restoring the relationship is more so a matter of cutting away at the brambles that have overgrown the abandoned path than using dynamite to blast a tunnel through a mountain of solid rock, although it feels that way at times.

I spent the past couple days with a child who is growing up in the most peaceful, healthy, natural way I’ve ever seen. He spends his days frolicking in the woods, imitating his parents, and playing with other children. No one needs to push him to learn—his parents have simply removed the barriers and let him follow his natural curiosity to explore and understand the world around him. The result is an exuberant, independent child.

At almost 2 years old, he has more confidence and courage than most people I’ve met. Everything he does fascinates me, as he seems to be so free from the woes and disconnection of modern life. What struck me most was the way he treated fear.

Down the hill behind his house runs a mountain stream. The water is icy cold this time of year, and it was higher than normal due to recent rains. The only way to cross the stream is via a rudimentary bridge built by his father from thin logs. Even for me, crossing feels treacherous as I see the water rushing along the rocks beneath me and I know that one misplaced foot would take me tumbling into the stream.

Nearly any parent I know who saw their toddler going near this structure would swoop in without a second thought and whisk him away to a safer activity like sitting in front of the TV. They would imagine all the horrific possibilities: his foot could fall between the logs and get him stuck, he could slip and crack his head open on the rocks, he could drown under the icy water.

Little Aaru, however, is left to make these decisions for himself. As I started crossing the bridge ahead of him, I could see the fear in his eyes. He didn’t need an adult to tell him it was dangerous—he could see that for himself. He asked for help, and I readily gave him my hand.

Later when we crossed back, he took a different approach. Although I could see that he felt the same fear, he mustered a strong determination to overcome it. He refused my offer to help and started to cross on his own, slowly and carefully, using his hands and feet like a little monkey. He looked down at the icy water rushing beneath him periodically, clearly aware of the danger, placing his hands and feet with great care. When he made it across, he didn’t turn around and look at me for my approval, like many children who are used to external validation. He simply ran forward joyfully to meet another challenge.

Aaru’s relationship with fear is the healthy one we were all born with. For most of us, it was squelched out by overbearing parents who didn’t trust our ability to assert our own needs. It’s the one we need to restore if we want to self-actualize and achieve greatness.

Despite what you’ve been taught, fear is not a feeling that you should avoid at all costs. Instead of running away from it, you should examine it and weigh the risks and benefits. When you reawaken your natural drive to learn and overcome challenges, it will pull you through all but the most perilous situations. Then when you make it across the bridge, the internal feeling of accomplishment should be enough to propel you forward to bigger streams.

This isn’t easy when we’re trying to undo decades of conditioning. But it’s helpful to remember that it’s not something that has to be forced, it’s just about rediscovering and unlocking the knowledge that has always been inside you.

 

Discrimination

Children are people too. No matter how young they are, they should be treated with the same respect that you would show any other human being.

If a friend of yours picked up something you thought he shouldn’t be touching, would you snatch it out of his hands without a single request or word of warning? If he walked into a room in your house where you thought he didn’t belong, would you pick him up and carry him into another room (if you could)?

Then why do we treat children like this? Just because some people are smaller and less experienced than us doesn’t mean they deserve any less respect.

Certainly, there are times when children need to be protected from danger—the same way you would grab a friend if she was about to be hit by a car.

Children need the chance to make messes, to get hurt and learn from their mistakes. They have an incredible inborn capacity to avoid danger. It’s only when we expect them to get hurt that they will tend to do so.

It’s no wonder we’re all traumatized and chronically lacking in self-esteem. If our parents and caretakers never trusted us to take care of ourselves, how would ever learn to trust ourselves?

I have witnessed this philosophy of parenting applied, resulting in the happiest, most responsible child I’ve ever seen. When I interacted with this little boy, I had to resist my impulses to snatch things from him. Instead, I had to get more creative in my approach. He was only 16 months old at the time, but I figured out ways to ask him for permission or explain why he something was a bad idea. It took a lot more effort than simply forcing him to comply with my wishes, but I could immediately see the difference it made.

The respect you show children will grow into the respect they have for themselves.


 

For more on this topic, I highly recommend reading The Continuum Concept.

Gardening

Chandler2

When I was growing up, I had to pick strawberries in my father’s garden nearly every day during the month of June. He didn’t plant things neatly in rows—he let things grow wherever they wanted, and rarely weeded out any unidentified plants for fear of losing some exciting new variety. By October, it always looked more like a small jungle consuming our backyard.

Sometimes my sister helped me pick. She would start at one corner of the patch and systematically work her way through each plant, leaving no berry behind.

My approach was a little more impulsive. I would start by picking the first strawberries that caught my eye. I jumped around the patch, taking only the juiciest, brightest ones that poked out from under the leaves, gobbling up half of them as I went. Only after I exhausted these, I would realize that my bucket was only half full, and I needed enough to make a whole pie. Then I would go back through each plant, lifting up the leaves to find the deformed, half-rotten, or bug-eaten berries that would fill up the bucket.

Although the pies I baked were nothing compared to store-bought, they were certainly not the cream of the crop.

My blog posts remind me of those pies, but without the sugar to cover up the rotten flavor. When I write, I start by scribbling down the best ideas and words that come to mind on a particular topic. Then I realize that my wild musings will make sense to no one but me, so I rack my brains to find some way to string it together in a remotely cohesive way. The result is a semi-coherent goulash of mixed metaphors and awkward transitions from conversational writing to academic jargon, stumbling along the windy dirt road that is this website.

I need to figure out a more effective writing process. Perhaps more revision is what I need. Or just more time, so that I’m not frantically typing into my phone on the way to a concert, hoping that I’ll get home with enough energy to copy and paste this into WordPress!