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.