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How Gratitude (Among Other Things) Can Combat Fear

How Gratitude (Among Other Things) Can Combat Fear

What are you afraid of?

The concept of “fear” will impart many different meanings for different people. Perhaps clowns, if you’re a child of the 80s. Or maybe heights for others. Possibly something more existential like dying, or what comes after – “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns,” as Hamlet put it.

However, as I’ve ruminated on the idea of fear lately, I’ve found it is more pervasive, specific, and insidious than I originally assumed. As any parent of young children can tell you, fear (which, at times can seem irrational, though certainly not to the child) can often be traced back to something being unknown or unfamiliar—I can’t see (and therefore can’t know) what’s in the dark, whether monsters are real, or even if Mom or Dad will actually “see you later.”

Our grown-up fears, and how rational they may or may not be, still come down to perspective.   Those fears aren’t any less crippling than those of our small humans, just on a different scale.

In fact, fear might be a significant portion of the fuel that drives us both individually and culturally. Do I file and pay my taxes less out of a sense of civic duty, than out of fear of being hounded and eventually garnished by the IRS? Do I go to that school, or take that job, or marry that person because I’m afraid of stepping off the path that seems predetermined for me, or possibly even the disapproval of someone who helped guide me on that path—like a parent or mentor, or how I’ll be seen by my peers? If I procrastinate implementing a new strategy or developing an idea, is it because I lack the skills or is it because the circumstances are so daunting I cannot even begin?

Could it really be as simple as the fear of not knowing how it will turn out?

Ironically, there are some indicators that the actof failure is substantially less daunting than the thoughtof failure. I recently heard Jamie Foxx in an interview discussing something he used to ask his kids when they were afraid: “What’s on the other side of fear?” The answer was, “nothing.” Whatever the thing may be—failure, loss, grief, pain—in and of itself, the actual thing will never measure up to the fear felt beforehand.

If you don’t believe me, check out the testimonials on cold shower therapy (which is a tool to assist with inflammation and body health). Unless you’ve spent your life swimming in arctic fjords, a 5-minute frigid shower pales in comparison to the agonizing minutes (or days, if you were like me) spent mulling over the potential horror of the thought of purposely being that cold.

This dichotomy of burning both ends of the fear candle – fear of a thing and fear of losing said thing – seems almost foolish when I break it down:

  • I’m afraid of losing my kids. But I also spent years being afraid of having them (who am I kidding—I’m still terrified).
  • I’m afraid of dying, but I’m also afraid of wasting my life (see also—living).
  • I’m afraid to pursue my passion, or chase that amazing idea I had—but I’m terrified of being shackled to a desk for forty years only to wake up and realize I simply missed it all.
  • I’m afraid of just being one of the herd, but I’m paralyzed by the fear of walking to the beat of my own drum.
  • I’m afraid of being rich, and I’m afraid of poverty.
  • I’m afraid of love, but also inundated with fear of being alone.

The list could go on and on. And believe it or not, we all secretly have our own versions of these same self-perpetuating fears, no matter what our Instagram pictures show.

What are we to do? What’s the alternative?

For myself, I’m interested in practical ways I can mitigate some of this fear.  One piece of research suggests it is impossibleto be grateful and afraid at the same time. (The same thing applies to other negative emotions such as anger—but that’s a different post.) It takes some practice, but getting yourself in the mode of truly focusing on all the blessings in your life is a unique mental state. Keep in mind this works both ways; one always overpowers the other, and it is self-perpetuating. My goal/struggle is working on the emotional muscle memory of keeping gratitude in the spotlight, rather than the fear. The more of this I do, the easier it becomes.  I hope that when I start seeing fear creep into my thoughts, I’ll remember to quell that with ideas of thankfulness and get back to a healthy mindset.

Many people, myself included, hold religious beliefs that have much to say on this topic. Biblically, I find it fascinating how many angels (and even God himself) begin a conversation by saying, “do not be afraid.” Possibly the most iconic psalm, Psalm 23, meditates on the Christian God being more powerful than our fears and the comfort we can take from that knowledge.

Christians don’t hold a monopoly on a deity or a belief system which is anti-fear. For example, Buddhism talks about “delusions” as distorted ways of looking at ourselves and the world around us. If I’m honest, a distorted perception of the world around me sums up many of my fears to a “t.” Likewise, Islam often describes fear in similar terms to Christianity, in that it should be ascribed to Allah and not the circumstances around us. Even for folks who do not subscribe to a specific set of beliefs—mindfulness and meditation have been proven time and again to be effective methods for reducing anxiety. Why? Because, at least to some extent, they clear the fear, anxiety, and correlated stress from our minds.

These personal fears leak into our society as well.  It’s possible that fear may be the single strongest motivator in our nation at this moment. Mainly, the fear of “them.” They might be smarter or more educated. They might have more money and power. Theycould have skin of a different color. They could have a different sexual orientation. They might be a different gender. They might hold a different set of beliefs from me. They might even be of a different political persuasion! *gasp*

Just as gratitude helps with my personal fear, commonalities can transcend cultural ones.  One thing we all have in common is that we are all afraid of something. We are all seeking comfort and solace. If it were possible for us to get past the fear of “them” and recognize that we all have these feelings we might find we’re more alike than we thought. We might find that the things we are most afraid of in them, are the same things they are afraid of in us.

If we continually look past the fear and focus on the things that are beyond it, both personally and as a community, I think the opportunities are infinite.  The other side of that fear is a lot easier than the burden that our fears have shackled us with.

So…what are we afraid of?

This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on fearfrom Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.

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Aaron is an educator, artist, and pluviophile who lives in Kansas City with the love of his life and their two incredible girls.

1 Comment

  1. Fear and gratitude. Chaos and order. Seeing what is not vs seeing what is. I like it.

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