A final message on facing fear
Oh friends, it has been a year.
I’ve been silent more often than not since the pandemic began, and in that time I’ve been doing a lot of listening. I’m still enjoying a slower pace and being in a process of inquiry rather than reporting, but I want to close out this series and leave you with some final thoughts on what the process of turning toward fear has taught me.
First, I want to praise anxiety.
Self-help culture and its sibling movements within capitalism promise a world where if you’re good enough bad things won’t happen to you. If you work on yourself, if you know yourself better, if you deal with your anger and envy, if you learn how to communicate better with your partner, if you change your body, if you defy your body’s limits, if you take 15 minutes a day to balance your mind and body—then you’ll be in control. Then you won’t need to be afraid. This is an entirely fear-based narrative, and working with it will do nothing to actually face the root of the fear and accept the transformations it can offer.
My philosophy as an artist and a healer is that there will always be times in our lives when we get lost, when we’re afraid, when we’re stuck. There’s no moral victory in never feeling fear. There’s no guarantee that as we get wiser our lives will get easier. And I don’t think we’re meant to stop feeling grief in the middle of a mass extinction, or in response to the uncountable black lives lost to state violence, or when genocide is still happening in Armenia, or when children are being torn from their families by ICE. And I don’t think we’re meant to not be afraid during a global pandemic that has killed millions, with the balance of power in America tilting ever more dizzyingly toward authoritarian hate groups, with the Amazon rainforest and the coral reefs dying and our atmosphere growing steadily warmer. Yet because these things are so big, the pain gets so big that we have to turn it off. And then, when we’re not aware of the depth of grief and fear we’re carrying, we act in ways that let that shit fester and grow.
So what do we do about how big the pain is, how big the fear is, at this moment in history? On a day-to-day level, it can feel like way too much to hold. Especially when you map your own personal pain onto this larger cultural moment. And it is too much for anyone to handle alone. Humans aren’t made to work that way. We’re social creatures, and even if we’re practicing physical distancing we are still tightly interwoven into a web of relationships with humans, plants, animals, and both micro and macro organisms, from the bacteria in our biome to the ecosystems we’re part of.
We tend to think of ourselves as outside of nature, and maybe even outside of history. Like there is a “you” that is unchanging and perfect, not part of your environment at all. This is, of course, total nonsense, but the fact that we can believe it says something really interesting about us. We’re great at escaping our particular realities when we need to, and sometimes we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Like when we think of ourselves as outside of the time and place that we are in right now, unaffected by all the things that affect us: the news cycle, what we ate last, the chemicals in the water we’re drinking, the stress of a deadline, the rush of love we feel when we get a letter from a friend. We imagine a continuity of self that doesn’t change in the face of all these changes because it helps us feel more grounded in a chaotic world. But there’s another way we can use this talent that takes just a little bit more effort. One really cool thing about being human is that we know how to become something other than just ourselves, our single selves, bound in our own skin and wearing our individual faces. We practice this by accident all the time when we watch a movie or read a book—for a period of time we become the characters whose stories we’re following. We can also practice this on purpose, when we’re really scared, for example.
I was really scared this fall, when I got diagnosed with cancer and realized I would need emergency surgery. It’s the news we all dread getting, and it’s happening to more and more of us as our environment has become more toxic. When I was most scared about the treatment plan, I overheard my brain sounding like a little kid—just run away, just ignore it, just pretend it doesn’t exist and maybe you won’t have to do the hard thing. What stopped me from following that voice was the responsibility I felt to everyone who loves me and to the people whose lives I affect whether we know each other or not. And when I felt most alone, I needed only look at a tree or a squirrel twitching its tail to remember that I share an abundance of oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon with this entire earth. It takes effort to move from the theoretical understanding of our interconnection to actually feeling it. This is something I practice regularly, because it doesn’t always come naturally. I have my own ways of feeling into it—yours might look different, but I call this fear-facing practice Get Big.
In some ways getting big is common sense, especially if you’ve been hiking where you might encounter a bear or a cougar. You want to raise your arms, make a lot of noise, do everything you can to make yourself seem bigger and more intimidating. This works with fear, too. But it can be hard to learn the trick of it when you’re in the grip of fear, because fear wants us to get small. Freeze. Hide. Pray it goes away. So it’s worth figuring out what you can collaborate with in order to get bigger. When you’re facing a bear, you might pick up your backpack or fan your jacket out between your arms. When your facing your own terror, you can also use external props and backup. Here’s just a few suggestions for making yourself bigger in the face of fear:
Imagine your fear is a small child coming to you with a bad dream and it’s your job to turn on the lights in the bedroom and hold that kid till they fall asleep again.
Imagine you have a direct line to your future self, the one who has survived this hard time, and they’re doing great. Picture them giving you a thumbs up from the near future, encouraging you.
Imagine you have a direct line to your future self, but far in the future now, and they’re not only doing great they’ve incorporated the lessons of this scary time into how they live their life and it’s made them incredibly strong.
Imagine that while you’re facing this scary thing, there are hundreds if not thousands if not millions of people across the planet facing the same fear. Imagine reaching out and holding their hands. Imagine how big you all would be, massed up together in a blockade through which fear cannot pass.
Imagine that if you have to give up physical autonomy, say for a surgery, that your body is no longer yours alone but you have become a life form that exists in the beeping of the machines behind your head and in the hands of the nurses who bring you warm blankets and in the intelligence and skill of the anesthesiologist and all of this continuity is working together to heal and transform you.
Imagine that your beloved dead, your healed ancestors, those who love you beyond all reason and have your best interest at heart, are sitting at the foot of your bed and loving you.
Imagine that all the bacteria in your digestive tract is concerned about your welfare and forming coalitions to Save the Human.
Imagine that you are a star momentarily taking on the form of a human and it is far more dangerous and confusing than being a ball of fiery gas, but also full of unexpected joy.
My friends, I’m closing out this Balsamic Moon Blog almost exactly a year after a began it. It has been inconsistent and strange, just like some of my favorite people in this world. In this time of massive change and strangeness it feels like the perfect thing to offer you right now.
I’m going to be taking time off from client work to recover from surgery for the rest of 2020, but I’m planning many exciting things for the new year. May it be one where we feel our strength in the face of all the damn things.