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Fear Itself

Back in March, when it became obvious that COVID would be impacting our lives for months or more to come, I decided to do my best to live in accordance with F.D.R.’s maxim, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Instead of being scared, I wanted to be calm, brave, accepting, and helpful. But in April, when mask-refusing protestors swarmed the Raleigh streets with a “no fear” rallying cry, I revisited Roosevelt’s famous words. I needed to get more precise in my interpretation of them — an interpretation that did not equate to being angry and reckless, as it seemed to do with these protesters.

F.D.R.’s condemnation of “fear itself” is deceptively complex. Fear itself actually isn’t something we should fear at all. It’s a perfectly human emotion to have, especially in times of war and pandemic. So I like to think that Roosevelt was referring more specifically to unconscious, exiled, repressed, and otherwise un-responded-to fear, and the ways it can control us — the ways it keeps us from trusting ourselves, one another, and the universe. 

Fear of sickness, death, poverty, hunger, and protracted isolation is an essential part of human life. But how do we respond to the fear? Usually, we don’t. And this lack of response is a fearful thing, indeed. For when we don’t respond to an emotion, we have no choice but to react from it: in the case of fear, to freeze, to fight, to flee.

So: you’re afraid of getting sick, afraid of dying. See if you can contact that fear right now in your psyche, perhaps even in your body. Imagine the fear is a young child seeking comfort. Take responsibility for it. See that the root of that word is response. 

Don’t attempt to make the child’s fear go away. That will only create shame because it sends the message that the emotion isn’t valid, and all emotions are valid. They might not be logical, but you can bet they have a damn good reason for being there. To make them go away would be entirely beside the point. All you have to do is acknowledge the discomfort. Simply let your fear-child know you care, and that you’re not going anywhere. Be careful not to say too much. Let the fear talk so you can understand it better. What’s it made of? What about it, exactly, is so unbearable? It needs a little love, a little kindness? What’s so hard about that?

There are different ways of responding to your own discomfort with loving-kindness. You might start with a little mantra. When you recognize that you’re scared, you can say to yourself, “May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live with ease.” You might take a few deep, mindful breaths. You might take a contemplative walk. You might lie on the floor for a few minutes. You might chop vegetables. You might call a friend. You might do yoga. You might cry. You might bake bread or write a poem.

Or…you can go on not responding. You can even claim to have no fear. And you can project your unacknowledged fear onto others, who then become responsible for it. Who then become just one more thing to flee from or fight, without so much as a mask to protect you. 

How to Deal with Climate Change

Blue ocean events. Wet bulb temperatures. Coral reef extinction. Global dimming. Food shortages. Floods. Fires. Hypercanes. These and other terms comprise the terrifying language of climate change, a source of major grief and anxiety for those of us who are paying attention. We feel powerless to stop the negative feedback loops already set in motion by centuries of shortsightedness, greed, and a rampant obsession with convenience and “progress.” We feel angry toward the generations of people who came before us and did nothing to prevent what now appears to be an imminent catastrophe. And our hearts break for the generations to come whose lives will be little more than a sweaty, scary struggle to survive — if those generations are even given the chance to exist.

So, what are we supposed to do? In many ways, the instinct to do something is what got us into this mess. Our fear of sitting still and doing nothing, of doing “boring” or repetitive things, or even just doing one thing at a time, has spawned some our most debilitating inventions. And the systems in place that maintain the ceaseless production of all that we have come to “need” are so massive and complex that I doubt the average citizen can effect the kind of change that’s required, no matter how much they vote, protest, reduce, reuse, and/or recycle. Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t do those things. On the contrary, we should all continue to act in ways that uphold our deepest values, because that is how we self-actualize and make the most out of the time we have left.

Facing a problem as overwhelming as the current climate crisis, many of us feel like a deer in headlights. We’re stuck in a freeze response, knowing we cannot flee (where would we go, if not planet Earth?), and not knowing whom to fight. Even if there were a discreet enemy to take outside and show who’s boss, maybe we’re not the fighting types. Some people are inclined toward activism, confident in their ability to wield the weapons of politics and policy. Others are not. And those in the latter category waste a lot of energy on guilt-ridden hand-wringing, thinking they should be able to go against their nature. Meanwhile, they neglect the actions more suited to their temperaments and specific talents, the fulfillment of which could give more meaning to their lives and better equip them to instill meaning in the lives of others. 

Saint Francois de Sales, a mystical writer from the 16th and 17th centuries known for his goodness, patience, and mildness, said that our requirement as humans is a “faithful fulfillment of the merest trifle given us to do, rather than the most ardent aspiration to things to which we are not called.” He also said that the “dignity and difficulty” of an action only affect what’s termed its “accidental worth, but all its essential worth comes from love alone.” What does it mean to act with love? This is the question we must ask ourselves, the question we must embody every day. The answer will vary from person to person (and possibly from day to day), but in most cases, love imbues activities with a quality of being freely chosen, as opposed to compulsory or nonconsensual. When at all possible, if you cannot do something with love, don’t do it. As for the “merest trifle given us to do,” therein lies our freedom from the fear-borne shackles of climate change. 

“More, more, more” has been our species’ response to the nagging belief that we are not enough — which we usually translate as not having enough and not doing enough. In thinking we should do everything (and all at once, no less!), we accomplish nothing. It may feel like a trifle, in the grand scheme of things, to do the dishes, fold laundry, pick up a piece of trash from the street, write a blog about eco-grief, etc., etc. But if we can approach these things as the tasks we have been given (i.e., as gifts), and do our best to fulfill them faithfully (i.e., with trust in their goodness and importance), then they will assume a sacred quality. With practice, we can approach all of life in this way, and thusly in touch with our most authentic selves, we can effectively pursue our values in accordance with our natural strengths. From that place, we can respond with expertise to the demands of the present moment, which is exactly what the climate crisis asks of us.

There’s only so much you can do. And what you can do will differ from what I can do. Maybe what we end up focusing on has nothing to do with climate change at all, at least on the surface. Regardless of the direction in which we channel our unique efforts, we must detach from the outcome of those efforts. We must do what would feel wrong not to do, with whatever tools we have been given. And all along we must be grateful. Each time I find my mind conjuring apocalyptic scenes in which everything I take for granted is suddenly, violently ripped away, I give thanks for the peace and beauty that still abound. Gratitude is the sweetest antidote to grief.

Mindful Cooking: Brown Rice

In my ideal world, we would all have schedules that allowed us to prioritize cooking. The preparation and sharing of fresh, flavorful, nutritious food would not be a perfunctory chore, but the primary activity on which all other activities centered. In the actual world, I’ll have to be content with inspiring a handful of people to cook just a little more often. That’s what I hope this blog series will do.

I myself have not always enjoyed cooking. I was twenty-five when I realized how satisfying it was to follow a recipe and end up with a beautiful, delicious meal. With this realization came another: I was capable of many great things. All I needed was the right ingredients, the proper tools, and some very precise guidance. Because I could learn how to cook, I could learn how to knit, how to draw (kind of), how to play guitar and write songs, how to be a radio DJ, a psychotherapist, a yoga instructor, and how to write a screenplay. 

Learning how to cook not only boosted my confidence in acquiring other skills, but also — and more importantly — taught me how to be mindful. Cooking gives me the time and space to be present with my Self. Few activities are more meaningful and life-affirming.

I’ve chosen brown rice as the first Mindful Cooking recipe because it’s so essential, and so simple. The opportunity for mindfulness is only about a minute long here, so make the most of it!

Here’s what you’ll need:

a fine mesh strainer

a small pot with a lid 

a cup of long-grain brown rice

2 cups of water

a teaspoon of olive oil 

a half-teaspoon of salt

Instructions

First, rinse the rice in a fine mesh strainer. Here’s your chance to be mindful. Don’t blast the water out of the tap; let it flow relatively slowly for a solid minute as you move the rice around with your fingers. Give all of your attention to the rice, the water, and your fingers. Also notice what’s happening in your neck, back, and shoulders. Notice how you’re breathing.

Turn off the water and let the rice drain for a moment, tipping the strainer in a few different directions until no more water drips from the bottom. 

Transfer the rice to the pot and add the water, oil, and salt. (I like to keep my salt in a small cup for easy measuring.) Stir everything with a fork, lid it, and place it over high heat. Bring it to a boil, then turn the heat down to low. Simmer on low (covered) for 45 minutes. 

While the rice cooks you can take a load off, or you can work on other complementary recipes, like roasted butternut squash or fresh salsa [coming soon].

Remove from heat and keep covered for 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork and serve.

I make at least one pot of this brown rice every week. It’s great in burritos (or burrito bowls) and as a side with salmon and veggies. It’s also a nice addition to certain soups and chilis. 

Thriving in a Sick Society

Philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” So if you don’t feel well adjusted, take heart! It probably means you’re exactly as you should be, and that you have a lot to offer this crazy world. It’s a beautiful place to be, yes. But it’s also a terrible place, and it’s getting worse. If you’re at all sensitive or have just one artistic bone in your body, this world won’t just break your heart, but shatter it. Over and over again.

Some people respond to a sick society through activism. They will tell you that your lack of action is part of the problem. But everyone responds differently to insanity, and their response largely depends on two things.

First, how much energy do they have? Most people are exhausted. Despite technology’s promises to save us time, it’s actually made us busier, more scattered, and less comfortable with slowing down in a way that would allow us to recuperate from all the busy-ness. Not to mention our largely sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy diets that keep us feeling lethargic if not downright depressed.

Second, what do they believe about their ability to effect real, lasting change? Most people simply don’t believe that they can make a meaningful difference in the world. This isn’t a belief you can talk — or more importantly, guilt — them out of. It’s the result of years of conditioning that probably started in their family of origin, and to shame them for it isn’t fair. In fact, those people need extra compassion. It’s painful to feel ineffective, to feel like no one cares. And in many cases it’s not just a feeling. When it comes to the ones who actually can effect change (i.e., those in charge), nobody does care. Clean air? Free healthcare? A relatively comfortable existence for your children and grandchildren? Go suck an egg!

Add to this the fact that we’re constantly bombarded with messages about how we can be better, stronger, faster, just so we might keep our heads above water in this nutso world, and it’s no wonder people aren’t raring to effect social change. They’re too wrapped up in trying to change themselves. Mainstream advertising is an obvious example, but a quick scan of recent titles on Medium.com also tells me that my approach to life isn’t optimal: “30 Excuses Stopping You From Living Your Best Life (and 30 Solutions to Overcome Them)”; “6 Important Questions That Will Improve the Quality of Your Life”; “6 Ways to Live Boldly and Passionately, As If Your Life Depends On It”; and “7 Things That Happy People Do Differently.”

Visit the site tomorrow and you’ll probably see a whole new slew of similar how-to articles, many of them with a numbered list of things that you “should do,” written by people who stake their credibility on the number of followers they have and the amount of money they’ve earned.

I’ve been compelled to read such articles time and time again (click bait!), and I rarely ever feel better for it. Most of the time it’s a comparison trap. And as Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Comparison is death.” The second we expect ourselves to be like anyone else but ourselves, a part of us dies. Pay attention and you’ll feel it. In those moments we lose touch with everything we have to offer that no one else can, because no one else is like us. We are all snowflakes, damnit.

So whenever you feel insecure, demoralized, depressed, irritable, or some version of “there’s something wrong with me,” remember that you’re basically living in a coo-coo clock (to quote Homer Simpson), and that everything sweet and wise inside of you is probably, on some level, responding to that insanity. In trying to survive — let alone thrive — in a sick society, you’re attempting something that’s incredibly difficult. Hats off to you for hanging in there.