Fear has been in the news a lot lately. The New York Times recently devoted two articles to how Olympic athletes deal with it. Amanda Gorman, whose poem rocked the world at President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January 2021, wrote about how fear almost kept her from showing up and reading her poem at the ceremony. Nearly every day there are stories of people in horrific circumstances struggling to survive and fearing for their lives. Closer to home, someone dear to you may be facing big health challenges and the fears that go with them. Fear seems to be everywhere. And the truth is that anyone who chooses to live life openly, authentically, and honestly will inevitably meet fear face-to-face. A fully lived life requires forging a healthy relationship with fear.
A Profound Sense of Self-Awareness
As I write, 18-year-old freeskier Eileen Gu has just won her first Olympic Gold Medal. Speaking to the New York Times before the 2022 Winter games began, she talked about fear in her sport:
I think everybody knows that everybody else is scared. But it’s easy to assume that they’re not. Being a young person, everybody is just figuring out who they are. And so, for me, understanding my relationship with fear is probably the first step in doing that. Instead of ignoring fear, we build unique relationships with it by developing a profound sense of self-awareness and making deliberate risk assessments.
It’s not just young people who are figuring out who they are. We all are, over and over again, as life presents us with new challenges and opportunities. We can be well served by building our own personal relationships with fear. And that starts with, as Eileen Gu expresses it, developing a profound sense of self-awareness. For her, forging a healthy relationship with fear is an intentional process. When we are willing to work with our fear instead of fighting against it or trying to run away from it, it can help make whatever comes on our path less daunting.
Listening to the Fear
Poet and author Amanda Gorman was catapulted to fame when she read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration. In her January 20, 2022 guest article in The New York Times, she wrote about her fear to speak out her truth as a young Black woman because of the threats of violence at the U.S. Capitol that day. She described how close she came to turning down the invitation to be the inaugural poet:
The night before I was to give the Inaugural Committee my final decision felt like the longest of my life. My neighborhood was eerily quiet in that early morning dark, though I strained my ears for noise to distract me from the choice that lay ahead. It felt like my little world stood still. And then it struck me: Maybe being brave enough doesn’t mean lessening my fear, but listening to it. I closed my eyes in bed and let myself utter all the leviathans that scared me, both monstrous and minuscule. What stood out most of all was the worry that I’d spend the rest of my life wondering what this poem could have achieved. There was only one way to find out.
By the time the sun rose, I knew one thing for sure: I was going to be the 2021 inaugural poet. I can’t say I was completely confident in my choice, but I was completely committed to it.
I’m a firm believer that often terror is trying to tell us of a force far greater than despair. In this way, I look at fear not as cowardice but as a call forward, a summons to fight for what we hold dear. And now more than ever, we have every right to be affected, afflicted, affronted. If you’re alive, you’re afraid. If you’re not afraid, then you’re not paying attention. The only thing we have to fear is having no fear itself — having no feeling on behalf of whom and what we’ve lost, whom and what we love.
Amanda Gorman’s story speaks loud and clear to me in relationship to my own life-long dance with fear. She wrote:
Maybe being brave enough doesn’t mean lessening my fear, but listening to it.
The more I have been willing to listen to my fear, the more it has become one of my most important teachers. I continue learning that what I’m afraid of on the surface is not usually what the fear is really about. Getting to what’s underneath the fear helps me understand what it’s trying to show me. And when I am willing to look at that—to be fully present with it—valuable insights and understanding arise. And I find my way forward. It might take time, yet in the end, I do.
Standing Up for What Matters Can Be Risky
Amanda Gorman: I look at fear not as cowardice but as a call forward, a summons to fight for what we hold dear…. If you’re alive, you’re afraid. If you’re not afraid, then you’re not paying attention.
When you stand up for what matters to you or fully live into your calling, fear is likely to be part of the journey. You will be asked to stretch yourself—to step beyond your comfort zone. Sometimes way beyond your comfort zone. You will find yourself in uncharted territory, and that will sometimes be scary. Careful navigation will be required. There are likely to be risks involved. Having a healthy relationship with fear helps you to discern which risks are worth taking and which ones may be too costly.
Before every performance, Amanda Gorman’s mantra to herself is:
I am the daughter of Black writers. We’re descended from freedom fighters who broke their chains, and they changed the world. They call me.
We all have different callings—a cause we are passionate about, a contribution we can’t not make, a truth we can’t not stand up for. It’s one thing to consider what you might risk by taking a next step toward your calling. It’s quite another to consider the risk of not taking that step.
Amanda Gorman continues her story about Inauguration Day:
Shivering in my seat from nerves and the unforgiving January cold, as I stepped up to the podium to recite, I felt warm, as if the words waiting in my mouth were aflame. It seemed that the world stood still. I looked out and spoke to it. I haven’t looked back.
On that Jan. 20, what I found waiting beyond my fear was all those who searched beyond their own fears to find space for hope in their lives…. Yes, I still am terrified every day. Yet fear can be love trying its best in the dark. So do not fear your fear. Own it. Free it. This isn’t a liberation that I or anyone can give you—it’s a power you must look for, learn, love, lead and locate for yourself.
Fostering a healthy relationship with fear is not about denying your fear or ignoring it. It’s about listening to it, working with it, even partnering with it. It’s about owning it and setting it free. No one else can do that for you. You have to learn how fear works in you so that you can co-create with it.
Fear is just one aspect of full-on living. It may be powerful and overwhelming, but it wouldn’t be there if what was happening didn’t matter to you—if you didn’t also possess a passion and commitment to something bigger. If we are living into our calling—into what truly matters to us—it’s going to cost us something. It’s not a question of whether fear will show up. It’s a question of how you will meet that fear when it does show up.
Fully Feeling and Facing Life
Transformational Presence graduate, author, and spiritual teacher Will Pye has been on a journey with brain tumors for close to ten years. His first book, Blessed with a Brain Tumor, chronicled the early years of this journey. His latest book, The Gratitude Prescription, is all about the power of gratitude for healing and finding inner peace. Will writes:
The miracle of gratitude is not about bypassing our human experience, dissociating from it, or placing a veneer of positive thinking over feeling awful. It is more about discovering the ease, peace, and beauty when we directly and fully feel and face life.
I love this quote from Will because of his full acknowledgment that being grateful is not about denying our human experience—denying what is hard or painful, denying that you are afraid. We can be afraid and be grateful at the same time. This is what it is to fully feel and face life—to be present with what is, and to listen, sense, and feel into what is happening without judgment on as many layers as you are capable of in that moment. Sometimes it’s the messages under the surface—what’s underneath the fear—that are the most important ones. Without the fear, we might not have found them.
Part of forging a healthy relationship with fear is learning to be grateful for it, even when it is difficult. Recognizing that the fear is there for a reason. It’s trying to tell us that there is something important to have a look at or be present with. A healthy relationship with fear starts with embracing it as a natural part of a fully-lived life.
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Related Blog Posts:
- Engage Your Fear and Choose Where You Will Put Your Focus
- From Fear to Love, Head to Heart, Start in the Belly
- Facing Your Fear and Transforming It Into Strength