We Have Nothing to Fear But

I have been meditating a lot lately on safety. If you asked me what I fear, I don’t know if I could pinpoint something in particular – a fear of catching Covid, a fear that the government will collapse, a fear that my colleagues will figure out that I really have no idea what I am doing at work and I am just making it up as I go along…

Some of these fears are irrational: my rational self tells me that I have very little chance of catching Covid – since I almost never leave my apartment and we let no one in – that my greater risk is going stir crazy from cabin fever.

Some of these fears are stoked by the media. Right-wing media scaring their viewers into believing that The Left is trying to foment communism and Antifa is rioting in the streets and that pizza-masters are running child abuse rings out of their basements with the blessings of celebrities and politicians. Left-wing media scares their viewers into believing that the Right promotes anarchy, and incites militant terrorists to commit insurrection, attacking state houses and the capital. As if that could ever happen, right?

All of these fears provoke each other. My fear of being exposed as a fraud at work is unjustified. We are all imperfect beings and I will make mistakes, just as everyone does. I have the skills and experience to do what I am doing and what I call “just making it up” is what someone else might call “making decisions.” I have been fighting this fear for years. Perhaps it stems from when, as a child, I felt – rightly or wrongly – that I had to take charge. (Oldest children often feel this way. If you come from a family where your parents seem averse to parenting, it gets worse.) Small children don’t have the skills or experience to be in charge, so they really are “just making it up” and sometimes things go awry. Any mistakes you make threaten your world view of being capable of being in charge, and you come to fear them. As you grow older, and develop skills and experience, you may begin to build confidence, but somewhere underneath that confidence is that little child, trying so hard to be the grown up, and failing.

Right now, with so much fear out there, the little fears we keep inside all the time become magnified. The fear of loss of government stability, the fear of hypocritical politicians, the fear of illness, the fear of cabin fever, your fears for your elderly parents, your fears as you watch friends and family members struggle in their own ways. All of these fears build up and manifest themselves in your little fears – fears of a pound or two that you put on because you can’t exercise as much as usually do; fear that someone will figure out that you don’t really know what you’re doing at work.

You can argue with these irrational fears, try to push them away, reason with them. That doesn’t usually work.

So I have been meditating lately on safety. Imagining that inner child that I sometimes see when I meditate, rubbing my hand gently on her back or her heart, and whispering, May you feel safe.

I have put a post-it on my work computer screen that reminds me, May you feel safe. When I am in a situation at work that pushes my panic button, I read that note and offer myself safety. Most of the time it works.

Yesterday, for a few minutes, it did not work. I got up from my chair, paced around the apartment, complained to my husband – who was in his own work panic – settled back in my chair and read the response I had received from a colleague who I had just confessed my concerns with. He didn’t have an answer either, which – strangely – made me feel better. He’s a real grown-up. If he doesn’t know either, I can’t be all that bad.

I remember reading that Temple Grandin – who designs humane animal control devices for herd animals that are destined for the human food chain; and who is a functioning autistic – designed for herself a kind of automated hug machine that calmed her down when she started to panic. It was based on a more humane squeeze chute she had designed for cattle, designed to calm them down when they were being handled, so that they wouldn’t become panicky and flood their meat with panic hormones, which makes their flesh less valuable. The squeeze chute and the hug machine work on the same principle of creating safety as the Thundershirt – the tight-fitting dog coat that keeps my mom’s anxious dog calm.

If you are feeling fearful or stressed right now, I recommend that you invite safety into your life. Wrap your arms around that vulnerable part of yourself, give it a gentle and firm squeeze. And send yourself safety.

There are other little changes you can invite into your life to increase your sense of safety.

  • Stop watching 24-hour news and reading online news feeds – you know they are just trying to scare you into continuing to stay engaged; if we don’t reward them for this bad behavior, they will change the behavior. That’s capitalism.
  • Start taking a short walk every day – just around the block is enough to start. Moderate exercise decreases stress; as does getting outside. If you can get somewhere with nature, that’s even better.
  • Find a way to stay connected to friends and family – if you don’t like video calls, phone calls are fine – we can’t all live on zoom all the time. Don’t have anything to say? That’s ok, invite the person to do something with you – cook a meal, knit, do a puzzle, watch a movie or a sporting event – where they can be on in the background, like having someone else in the room with you. It sounds stupid but works surprisingly well.
  • Give yourself a break. If you’re usually someone who exercises and eats healthily and you are snacking more or are only exercising on weekends, it’s okay. Just because you are like this now doesn’t mean that you will always be like this. We’re kind of in opposite world – many people who had a healthy lifestyle before are struggling to maintain it now; and some people who had an unhealthy lifestyle before have found what they need to invite a healthier approach into their lives now. It’s okay either way.

    You’re expending a lot of discipline. Discipline is like a cup that gets filled. Once you’ve filled it – with remembering to wear your mask, mentally measuring 6 feet away, chlorox-wiping the groceries and the mail and your shoes, working diligently from home (or diligently applying to jobs you never hear from), being there for loved ones who are losing it – your cup may be too full to add the discipline of not snacking or daily exercise. And that’s ok. As you find safety and relax, the level in your cup will drop and you’ll be able to fit something else in.

I was listening to a Jack Kornfield mediation recently, and he shared a story from Ticht Nhat Hanh about when he was traveling across the Pacific in a tiny, overcrowded boat, in an effort to escape from the repressive regime in his home land. He said that, when a crisis came – pirates or a storm – if the people in the boat panicked, the boat overturned and all would be lost. But if even one person could remain calm, the calmness could spread, and the boat would be saved.

You can be that one person in your boat.

You have nothing to fear but fear itself.

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