Our cells and our planet have semi-permeable membranes to protect us. Our psyches and spirits do, too. The consequences of the loss of “semi-” for cells is death or mutation (i.e., cancer); the consequences for the planet is also death or mutation. The consequences for psyches and spirits are even more subtle and just as consequential.
Fear contributes to the retention of “semi-” when it is healthy, the kind that Parker Palmer referred to in The Courage to Teach when writing about becoming “porous to learning.” The care and maintenance of our semi-permeable membranes is semi-conscious and semi-intentional, and more popularly known as boundary-setting.
Throughout our lives we are constantly bumping or crashing in to boundaries – some give out, some remain painfully in place. We are also moving and shifting boundaries as we and our environment changes. Boundaries are set for us by others when we are young, and by physics when we are…well…physical. All the boundaries beyond the physical are neglected in cultures that value the physical over the spiritual and psychic (i.e., having to do with the psyche). As you might realize, there’s a connection between neglect of boundaries and fear. When we set boundaries it helps alleviate and edit our fears; when boundaries dissolve or are dismantled, we are inundated with fear. So, even as important as boundaries are, we also need to have openness. This kind of openness shows up in silence, slow pace, or learning that is unfamiliar and uncomfortable. However, we tend to fill space rather than open it.
A bounded and open presence or space offers an invitation to engage in a space safe enough for fear. If we can become “hosts” in creating and maintaining such a space for ourselves and others, we can to encourage inquiry, a community of truth, and practice vulnerability. These are “soft skills” that make it possible to hold space that is safe enough to for fear, for apprehension. The “hard stuff” in this space can be: disagreement, confusion, vulnerability, failure, and learning something completely new. These are necessary for inquiry, both reflective and exploratory, and happens in the presence of emotions – in the presence of fear.
Fear pops up when cracks in our understanding or worldview appear, after we have bumped in – or run headlong in – to a concept, perspective, or experience that doesn’t fit. For example, I work for a well-respected non-profit who’s mission is to end poverty in one of the most affluent communities in our country. Our most recent initiatives included advocacy and education to interrupt the systems that perpetuate poverty. However, we depend on donations from the very rich to support our work, from the very same people who benefit from the systems that perpetuate poverty. We risk our funding (i.e., our ability to help people stay warm, fed, and safe) if we interrupt these systems that support our donors and insure we won’t fulfill our mission.
Fear becomes louder when cracks open up to gaps, when our understanding has a clear drop-off beyond which we can’t perceive anything else. Referring to the previous example: so much of our economic (capitalist) system depends on a lot of people being poor (poor as in not having enough money/resources to thrive). If we don’t want poor people, we need to dismantle capitalism.* What else is possible in our vast, diverse society for regulating goods and services “to promote the general welfare“?
Wouldn’t a bridge be nice when a crack or gap appears? Believe it or not, engaging one of our underutilized fear responses – connect – anchors the bridge to possibility. Some might call anchoring in connection in the face of fear “faith.” Connection across cracks, across gaps, and across knowing has drawn Parker Palmer consistently to engage with fear in both his learning and teaching. In a conversation we had years ago, he said that he believes human beings live between faith and fear and that,
…that’s not one you resolve or collapse, precisely because that faith involves the mysterium tremendum, and there’s a very healthy fear that one feels as one walks up to the edge of that mystery…What holds mystery is different for different ones of us…But faith and fear define the dance we all do, and the music goes on forever and we never get off the dance floor.
When we shake things up, boundaries and precious worldviews get cracked. When things get shaky, the best thing to do is dance into the next revolution.
*I’m not going to debate this point here. If you think that capitalism can exist when every child goes to bed every night safe, warm, and fed – then please contact the Gates Foundation or similar entity of international influence to change every enactment of capitalist endeavor in the world. You will not only eliminate poverty, but likely abortion, too.