Getting To The Core of Our Fears

Lately I’ve been posting a lot on the theme of “retirement” and financial resilience. (If you want to tune in to a lot of thoughtful discussion on this topic, from people with many different viewpoints and experiences check out Socially Conscious FIRE (on Facebook). It’s become one of my favorite online forums relevant to creating a sustainable lifestyle.)

Another thing I’ve been doing lately is take time to really get to the root of my fears.

In USAmerican society, it seems like a lot of our fears are focused on material things. Not making enough money to be comfortable; not saving enough money for retirement. Some of that fear is understandable. Our society has reached a point where certain costs of living (most notably rent, healthcare, and student debt) have rendered life precarious for many people.

But, that very realistic anxiety aside (and also universal human “lizard brain” instincts such as fear of starvation aside), I think one of the sources of low-grade gnawing fear in this affluent modern consumerist culture is that we’ve forgotten about a great, old-fashioned foundation of comfort and security. I’m talking about faith. Not necessarily a specific religion (though that certainly works for many people!), but rather, a broader sense of faith. A general belief that “things will work out somehow; we’ll get through this.” A working familiarity with the concept of surrender. And a willingness to practice surrender. Take sensible action but then accept you only have so much control over the outcome. Turn it over to the universe; give it to God; however you think of it. I’m good at it when I remember to do it, but I do find myself having to remind myself to do it.

Another thing, besides surrender, that I find helpful in dealing with my material fears is taking time to get to the real heart of those fears.

Some years back, when I was going through a very rough patch financially and emotionally, it turned out that my biggest fear wasn’t being broke (after all, I was broke already!) or even becoming homeless. Rather, my biggest fear was the shame I’d feel if my family found out how far down I’d fallen. Identifying the core of my fear didn’t fix it, but it did help me prioritize and think more clearly.

Later, after my Mom died, I found myself having a lot of fears around money. (Ironic, because I suddenly had more money than I’d ever before had in my life, having inherited it when Mom passed.) Well, when I really navigated to the heart of my fear, I found that it really had nothing to do with money at all! My fear was all about losing touch with my siblings, since I live far away from them and since I had been (without realizing it) depending on my parents as my channel for keeping a connection with my brother, sister, brother-in-law, and nieces.

Identifying the core of my fear didn’t instantly fix the problem, but it gave me a constructive direction to move in: Work on building stronger connections with my brother, sister, etc. Whereas if I had not identified the real core, I might have become preoccupied with hoarding money, acquiring more money, and so on. Money-hoarding hasn’t generally been a thing I’ve fallen into. But I will say that for awhile, I was pretty preoccupied with things like making a living will, getting a prepaid cremation plan, etc. All of that is sensible stuff to take care of, don’t get me wrong — and it did increase my peace of mind to take care of it. But if I had not also pinpointed my true core fear — fear of losing relationship with siblings; fear that they could very happily live without me — then no amount of attending to practical logistics/material stuff would have addressed my deep-seated unease.

The fact is, I was in some ways distant from my family for years, as I was living in various different places far from them, and also working through my mental/emotional issues (with professional help), which consumed a lot of my bandwidth and seemed easier to do at a distance from my familial origins.

I always kept in pretty good touch with Mom and Dad via letters and phone calls, but took my sibling relationships for granted too much. So yeah, that, coupled with the fact that I live in Florida and they live up north, and our parents are no longer on earth with us, does mean it’s possible my relationships with them could fade. And the future of those relationships is only partially in my control.

There seems to have been a point in my adult life when I suddenly went from being sort of detached from my family, to realizing how very very much they each meant to me. Fortunately this point arrived while both my parents were still alive, and I got to have many happy years of loving connection with them (albeit at a geographic distance from them, and also feeling like I had to be “in the closet” about certain stuff, most notably my financial situation after I dropped out/fell out of the middle class). I’m still dealing with some regrets about how I handled all that. Wishing I had had the courage to share more openly with my family about my life, warts and all. I feared their disapproval and also didn’t want to worry them needlessly. But by not sharing more openly, I created a barrier to closeness. And by not sharing with them my “scarier” trials, I also ended up not sharing with them the great exhilaration and sense of life-mastery that went along with navigating those trials and coming out feeling stronger and more fully alive. Sharing our experiences is one form of generational wealth.

Even recognizing that I might have done things differently, I’m not crying over spilt milk, but rather, using the lessons to be more courageous from here on. And it helps just knowing that my worst fear over these past 2-3 years isn’t anything to do with money, but rather, a fear of someday not having relationships with my siblings and nieces. Now that that fear has been exposed, I can work with it. I can make my best efforts to build deeper connections with them. And, I can practice surrender; let go of the need to control the future; just appreciate what we have now.

How about you — Do you have money anxiety? And have you explored to determine whether some other emotion(s) might be at the real root of that anxiety? And what do you think are some of the main factors that make so many Americans so anxious about money, material things, and “having enough for retirement”?

I hope this post has been helpful to you in some way. And please drop me a line if you’d like to share anything about this topic!

In closing, some thoughts on fear and courage.

• “Fear is the mind-killer.” — Frank Herbert

• Courage is not the absence of fear. It’s facing fear, and moving through it. This is old news, but some of us need to be reminded sometimes.

• “You can’t test courage cautiously.” — a quote from Annie Dillard that I happened to run across today before I made this post.