Facing Down Fear

“Indeed, your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness–”
— Albus Dumbledore to Voldemort in Harry Potter.

The fact that there are things worse than death doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable for humans to fear their own death. After all, most of us don’t know for sure what happens after death; we have to go on faith. Still, reminding ourselves that there are “much worse things” can help ease our fear of death.

Worse things than death: Not living fully while we’re still alive. Reaching the end of our lives with amends unmade; rifts unmended. Living an imitation of someone else’s life; never discovering one’s own true self. Knowing who we are but always putting up a false front and never sharing our true self with the world. Stumbling around never waking up. Never making mistakes but also never stretching, never growing. To list a few.

Just as there are worse things than death for an individual, there are also worse things than death for society as a whole. At a time like this, with people getting sick and dying; people losing their livelihoods and maybe their homes, this is a hard thing to say and a hard thing to hear, but it needs to be said: There are worse things for society than a pandemic or other crisis that threatens the very future of human life on earth. The main “worse thing” I can think of, is that after the crisis passes, we just slip back into our old default ways, with no changes, nothing learned, no lasting corrections to the craziness that passes for “normal” in everyday life. I like to think that won’t happen in this case, but it is always a possibility.

Today, I “attended” my church (the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ormond Beach) for the second week in a row, together virtually with many other members, courtesy of live-streaming technology. The sermon was titled, “Befriending Our Fears,” and you can catch the recording of Reverend Kathy Tew Rickey’s service on YouTube. The theme of befriending our fears could not have been more relevant to me this morning.

I’d gotten up fairly early, around 6, and gone outside to catch the beauty of the morning and water some plants. Fairly quickly, I found my fresh morning joy spiraling down into anxiety and hopelessness as I contemplated the lengthening drought and my still-insufficient gardening ability. Plants were looking peaked (the lack of rain adding insult to the injury of my innate plant-cluelessness) and I had run out of things to try. Water more? Water less? Nothing seems to help.

But as I sat with my feelings, the deeper fears that underlay them started to rise to the surface. And as I faced those fears, fully acknowledged them one by one, I began to get relief. There were more layers than I was expecting. There was a fear that my ineptitude would kill these innocent living beings I had taken into my care. That’s a tough thing to bear.

There was a more prosaic fear that the native plants I’d bought for privacy hedges (as well as for the benefit of wildlife and the land) would never grow, and I’d be stuck needing a fence forever, and also would never be able to screen out the obnoxiously bright streetlights. For the first time, I fully felt that I could handle any of that; that there were worse things. I realized how I’d been hanging onto this idea “I must have tall high shrubs and I must have them now!” Realizing I could just deal with things as they are helped me relax.

I realized that I could let myself off the hook, quit spending money on lovely plants only to live in constant fear of killing them. I could just be happy with what’s growing right now, as it is, the unflappable native wildflowers, a few stunted but scrappy herbs and veggies, and other buoyant survivors, and let the rest unfold in its time. Surely plants, like people, can’t thrive in an atmosphere of nervousness, and I’ll give them a better chance at life by cultivating a more relaxed loving attitude. And I can just focus on the unchallenging but (to me) richly enjoyable activity of layering my yard with the oak leaves, grass clippings, and other riches (termed “yard waste” by conventional wisdom) that I gather from curbside in my hand-cart, and let this earthy lasagna do its magic of attracting the teeming community of good microbes and bugs that form the foundation of healthy soil. And trust that this evolution will take place to a sufficient degree and in sufficient time for the soil to be more plant-friendly when I really need it to be, if such a time should come to pass.

Another layer of fear I noticed was a primal fear of starving to death because I haven’t been very successful at growing food. Could I handle it, if it came to that? I realized I could, because there are worse things to me. For example, spending my life ignoring other people because I’m so wrapped up in worry about my own fate — that, to me, would be worse than starving to death. Anyway, I have in fact grown food quite well at times in the past — just never alone. Always in cooperative arrangements. There’s a lesson there. Find nearby likeminded folks; grow stuff in partnership. I’m working on it.

I am of course worried about drought; I have been for a long time here in Florida. Our conventional landscaping practices (which I sometimes refer to as land-scalping or land-scraping) — the relentless clearing and incessant mowing that leaves just a thin film of turfgrass and increasingly bare patches of compacted sand — strip away the green buffer and ground-sponge, creating conditions ripe for ever more intense drought-flood extremes. What I’m calling the “crispy” season seems to be lengthening here, and now maybe we’re going to be having it in March-April as well as in October. (The past two years’ Octobers here have been brutal, with seasonal raininess stopping short while summer heat was still in full force.)

This morning I sat with my fear of drought. Yes, this place could become a desert in my lifetime. Yes, we could all become displaced; there could be horrific wildfires, widespread famine, the utter decimation of all life from the lush paradise Mother Nature had provided. Hard to imagine worse than that. But as I felt my commitment to doing my best to save the lives of other people, present and future, who may not have had the opportunity to live as long or as many lives as me, my own fear began to dissipate. I’ve got a post in the works for you about simple things we can all do to help mitigate drought-flood extremes, wherever we live.

Another primal fear I contacted was the fear of being useless, superfluous, having no skills of any use to anyone, ultimately being alone and unwanted, no community. (This is one I’ve been peeling away layer by layer for decades, but today I found a new layer.) I asked myself could I handle it after all, if it came to that — if really I ended up with no place to live, no way to make myself useful? And I realized that yes, I could; that somehow I would find a way to move forward and love life and somehow be in service, not be a burden on anyone. That there were worse things.

Facing each fear, experiencing it deeply and feeling it dissipate, I ended up feeling simultaneously calm and energized, and had a beautiful morning, capped off by the sermon on “Befriending Our Fears.”

Later in the day, the theme of facing fear and coming out stronger on the other side of it continued, as I spotted an extremely powerful article on a friend’s Facebook feed:

It’s Time to Emotionally Prepare for What’s Coming, by Elad Nehorai on medium.com. Anticipatory grief — preparing ourselves emotionally for the loss of life (our loved ones’, and our own) — is a heavy task but an essential one, and I really want to thank my friend Flip Solomon for sharing this article. Flip is a talented and hardworking visual artist, fashion designer, and all-around creative soul. You can see Flip and her work by visiting her Facebook page The Art of Flip Solomon and her website. Enjoy!

Because, yes, we can have joy too amid all this pain and uncertainty. Life is wondrously fractal and layered. The deepest, giddiest-yet-most-solid joy I’ve ever found in life has always been on the other side of fear and pain.

P.S. Another treat for you! Beautiful talk that a friend just now shared with me. “Remaining True in a Time of Crisis.” About taking the crisis as an opportunity to slow down, “grow inward,” engage in self-discovery, become centered in our true nature. (The speaker, Mooji, points out that fear comes from not being centered in our true nature.)

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