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.