The Dance of Fear

Overnight a light snow had painted a beautiful wintry scene. Driving my daughters to daycare I couldn’t help but smile at the snow covered trees and fields. I told the girls several times that it had snowed and to see how pretty everything looked. They oohed and aahed as two year olds will and said several times, “Cold mommy, cold!”

A van coming from the other direction caught my attention. In the passenger side of the front window I saw two brightly colored things shoved up against the windshield. It took my mind a moment to realize that there must have been a passenger riding with her bright colored slippers up on the dashboard. My mind then flashed to a vision of a young woman leaning back in the passenger seat of a car. The windows are down, her long hair is flying and she has her bare feet propped up on the edge of the window. She is laughing and carefree on a gorgeous summer day.

The image felt so warm and perfect.

Yet then the thought that it wasn’t safe to prop one’s feet up on a dashboard or out a window started to stream into my consciousness. What if they were in a car accident? She would probably lose her feet.

Before these thoughts could grow into a cacophony I realized how this way of thinking is based on fear. Fear of what could happen. Fear of “what if.”

That young carefree woman, bare feet hanging out the window, that I had imagined, was living in the moment and enjoying life. She wasn’t worrying or living in fear of being in a car accident in the next five minutes. I thought about how this world we live in seems more and more to be in a state of fear.

Consider all of the laws that have come into being in the last forty years. Laws that are meant to keep us safe. Helmet laws for motorcyclists and kids riding bikes. Seat belt laws. Some of these laws are saving lives and keeping people safer. Yet there is also a sad aspect to such mandates. It makes it seem as if such laws just make us more aware of what could happen. People grow more scared and begin to carry the fear around with them. Headlines promote the idea that there are terrorists and creepy child snatchers lurking in every dark corner. There seems to be a more constant reminder of we can get hurt or even worse die.

The truth that we all seem to want to hide from is that we all are going to die some day. We get sick. We grow old. We have accidents. We are human.

What I have begun to question is are we going to live life fully and embrace it with abandon or do we choose to live it fearfully and with trepidation.

Exactly how do we keep from being sucked into living a fearful life? Or if we already are living a fearful life, how do we stop?

“Fear is not something to be conquered or eliminated — or even tackled, for that matter” writes Harriet Lerner, author of The Dance of Fear. “Instead, we may need to pay close attention to its message.” Another passage that jumps out at me from The Dance of Fear, “We may believe that anxiety and fear don’t concern us because we avoid experiencing them. We may keep the scope of our lives narrow and familiar, opting for sameness and safety. We may not even know that we are scared of success, failure, rejection, criticism, conflict, competition, intimacy, or adventure, because we rarely test the limits of our competence and creativity. We avoid anxiety by avoiding risk and change. Our challenge: To be willing to become more anxious, via embracing new situations and stepping more fully into our lives.”

The message I take from this passage is that we can’t outrun our fears. We can’t vacuum them up and throw them away. Fear is part of being human. It is more about what we do with our fears. Do we let them control us? Do we sit in the chair tapping our toes when we really want to cut loose and dance? Do we stay in a daily rut instead of signing up for that class or asking that guy we’ve been crushing on out on a date?

What if we embrace our fears and do it anyway? What if we say to ourselves every morning “This may be my last day living. What do I want to accomplish? What do I want to do with these precious 24 hours?”

Activity ~ Visualize that you are no longer afraid. Make a list of things the new FEARLESS you would do. Here are a few ideas:

Go to a hot springs with some girlfriends and dive in the water naked.
Take dancing lessons.
Tell the truth to your family about being molested as a child.
Really belt out a song on karaoke night while sober.
Apologize and try to heal a relationship.
Tell the people who mean the most to you that you love them, while staring them in the eyes.
Ride your bike without any hands.
Take a trip by yourself.
Stand up for yourself when someone is rude.
Apply for your dream job.
Go skydiving!
Ride in a car, the windows down, your hair flying and your feet hanging out the passenger window.

Suggested Reading ~ The Dance of Fear: Rising Above Anxiety, Fear and Shame to Be Your Best and Bravest Self by Harriet Lerner, PhD

Here is an excerpt:

Fear is not something to be conquered or eliminated — or even tackled, for that matter. Instead, we may need to pay close attention to its message. Most of us experience fear as a kind of stop sign or flashing red light that warns: “Danger! Do not enter!” But we may need to decode that signal and consider what it’s trying to convey. What is the actual nature of the danger? Is it past or present, real or imagined? Are we feeling anxious because we are boldly charting new territory, or because we’re about to do something stupid?

Sometimes we feel a stab of fear or a wave of anxiety because our unconscious is warning us that we’re truly off track. Perhaps we shouldn’t send that angry e-mail or buy that adorable “fixer-upper” house. Maybe we shouldn’t rush into a particular job, conversation, trip, marriage, or divorce. In such cases, fear can operate as a wise protector, one we need to honor and respect.

Yet if fear was always a legitimate warning signal, we might never show up for a doctor’s appointment, speak up when we feel passionate about something, or leave a dead-end relationship. There are times when we need to push past our dread and resolve –with our hearts pounding in our chests — to act.

At still other times, we may need to identify the actual sources of fear —past or present — that may be obscured from our view. For example, the anxiety that washes over you when you contemplate confronting your spouse may mask an underlying, ancient terror of speaking up to your father when you were a child. Clarifying these deeper sources of anxiety may help you to talk straightforwardly with your partner. Fear is a message–sometime helpful, sometimes not–but often conveying critical information about our beliefs, our needs, and our relationship to the world around us.

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