The Fear Factor: Finding stability when it all goes shaky

Although the world is full of pain, it is also full of overcoming it.

(Helen Keller)

And then…

So this has been a fun week…

Regardless of where one’s politics land, the Capitol building being breached, two people killed and four others dead is just not comforting.  A President declining to commit to a peaceful transition of power is not comforting. The slow roll out of the COVID vaccine and the knowledge that a ginormous number of people will die before we start to recover is not comforting. We were already worn down, struggling to catch our breath… and now this.

AND… (Remember what I said about “and?”)

No, I’m not going to put a positive spin on this. I am, however, going to challenge you to reach inside and find your own counterbalancing resiliency. Yes, it really is in there.  You find it when you use your fear strategically. 

The fear we imagine

Fear of a threat that exists in this particular moment can be helpful because it requires an immediate response. Most of the fears we carry that wear us out and wear us down, generate from things that do not need an immediate response.

For example: If you leave your house and witness someone violating another person’s civil rights, you will need to think clearly and act decisively in that moment.  Your fear will (hopefully) prompt you to action to help your fellow humans. You can thank your body for the important information, then use all of your handy dandy tools to stop the flow of cortisol and adrenaline so that you can respond in a helpful way. Bravo. You just used fear well.

However, injustice exists every moment of every single day.  Righting it systemically will require sustained, conscious, and possibly even daily effort to move toward change. In this particular moment? Those action points can wait until you finish your tea, gather your thoughts and make a strategic plan.  If you are consumed with how unjust our country is every single moment of every single day, you will be on such cortisol overload that you will have no resources whatsoever to draw from when your opportunity for action comes.

Carrying a fear response indefinitely, anticipating action points that are not currently happening just does not go well. 

Don’t spill

Imagine for a moment that you have a glass of water and you are aware that a lot of people around you are thirsty. A fearful thought keeps coming to you: “These people are going to die without this water.” Each time you have the thought, a little bit of water falls out of the glass. If you get stuck all day long, consumed with the thought of these genuinely thirsty people dying because they didn’t have water, when you encounter one of them… you will have no water left. You will also be parched, because you haven’t had any water to drink either.

Oil and water

Let’s take that same water and imagine it in a bowl.  Imagine that all of the humans are the water. Fear is like oil dropped into the middle of the bowl, repelling these water molecules away from the water molecules.  The more fear we add, the farther away from “those water droplets over there” we go. The gap can seem irreconcilable.

This week taught us that fear can drive us to commit federal crimes. It can drive us to shut down and shut out dialogue with others, and to stop listening ourselves when what we hear is so laden with a fear that is opposite ours that it makes the other person’s world view irreconcilable with our own.  Our fear pushes us to turn our backs in self-protection, groping for a sense of truth and groundedness, and protection from “Them… over there...” 

Lessons from Kamau Bell

Have you ever watched Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America on CNN? It’s absolutely fascinating. Essentially, he explores the human fear of “other,” and he goes right up through the middle of it. Whether or not you are interested in the show, I invite you to click this link just to get an idea of what he looks like.

There aren’t too many groups of people that are understood as “other” more than African Americans and the Ku Klux Klan.  And yet, there he is – undeniably, unmistakably African American. He’s really hard to miss. And he’s sitting down to coffee with a Grand Wizard of the KKK.

And yes… he was terrified.  He’s very open about that.

He used not only his fear well, but also the fears some people have of the Klan as well as the fears some people have of non-WASP people, and gave them a platform where they could shift from fear to curiosity.  He created an opportunity for greater understanding. Never underestimate the power of a comedian to break down barriers.

Those people… over there…

The fears that are erupting in violence in our current, fiercely polarized country have everything to do with “other.” Those people over there are trying to STEAL OUR COUNTRY! The polarized edges on both sides of the bowl appear to be convinced. In our fear, we sometimes spin out of control and stop thinking critically about how we are interpreting the world around us. In our fear we oversimplify. In our fear, we demonize those people over there as they express their fear in terrifying, damaging and dangerous ways.

This exacerbates our fear. We begin to act even more rashly, in more and more polarized ways, which leads to more support for the fears we hold about them, leading to more dangerous behaviors… and look at us now.

We are carrying our fear with us day after day after day and it is killing us, quite sincerely. The threat is physical, emotional, Constitutional, spiritual, systemic, local, national. We are risking it all in the name of fear.

Thanks again, Kamau!

Let’s go back to that episode about the Klan. I watched it. I am still convinced that putting a EuroMale face on a terrorist group should absolutely not exempt that group from appropriate prosecution. (Hate crimes are not legally exempt from “free speech.”) At the same time, I do feel like I have a better understanding of what makes the members of the Klan tick.

Should I have a personal encounter with a Klan member, I will be able to be more strategic about whether or not I might have an avenue of influence for change. I will also have a better idea of when to get the HAIL out of there to protect me and mine.

I still have a very serious problem with them. Should a Klansman or Klansmen put my family or anyone else in my presence in jeopardy, I will still be (I believe, intelligently,) frightened by the threat of that moment. I will not carry a pervasive fear about them through my life. Life is too short and I am not willing to give them that much space or power in my psyche.

Two choices

As I see it, we are on the precipice of an inevitable change. We’ve run out of places to go. We can either feed the fear and self-destruct, or we can learn how to stop carrying our fears into every potential conflict. We can recognize that we do not know what the person in front of really thinks or why. We can ask. We can free ourselves up to respond rather than react. We can speak to the fears of others who are willing to likewise stop carrying their fears into every situation. We can choose to accept that none of us know what someone is about based on political persuasion. We can listen. We can diffuse the bomb-like fear that feeds on itself and learn to see the humans behind the hazards and make decisions from our centered wisdom.

If we can see humans instead of “them…. over there…” we can create sustainable change. We come out of the craziness and learn how to human better.

Who’s with me?


If fear is trying to take over your life, please contact me here. I’ll do my best to connect you with resources that can help.