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Where “fear” came from…

Word-nerd alert:

The English word “fear” is very old. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (or, “The Tome,” as I prefer to call it), “fear” was first defined as “a sudden and terrible event” and was first found written in English in 1068. A hundred years later, in 1175, the word meant “the emotion of pain or uneasiness caused by the sense of impending danger, or the prospect of some possible evil” and had become “the general term for all degrees of the emotion.”

It is interesting the shift from the presence of fear (an event) to the prediction of fear (“impending,” “prospect”). In 1068, fear was something that happened which was “sudden and terrible,” but by 1175 fear was a feeling that something could happen that was dangerous or evil.

I dug a little deeper into fear’s etymology (word genealogy) and found that the base of the word is pre-Teutonic and is probably a form of the Aryan root per [“fare” or “there”]: to go through. That’s interesting!

If fear is something we go through, that would include the approach (hasn’t happened) and the passage (it’s happening). To me, this hints at something in our cultural heritage as English speakers (native and learned) that links feeling fear with going through something that is sudden and terrible.

So what difference does knowing fear’s etymology make to…anything?

Well, many linguists, particularly George Lakoff, have pointed out that our language informs (brings to form) our reality; that is, how we experience our lives changes when we change the words with which we define and describe that experience. Psychologists tend to concur and we now have popular memes urging us to practice saying “thank you” to be happier, and paying attention to what we call a person (“girl” or “woman”; “Indian” or “Native American”; “terrorist” or “troubled”; etc.) to see why we behave in particular ways toward them (yes, including what pronouns we use).

As this relates to how we experience fear in various forms, let’s look at another word that is deeply rooted in our experience: intuition. Although “women’s intuition” tends to be debased as fantasy in much of our culture, the root of the word “intuition” (“tuere”) is directly related to the role of real fear – “to guard, to protect.”  The “gut feeling” of intuitive fear is qualitatively different from anxiety, worry, and panic, according to Gavin de Becker in his book The Gift of Fear.

In his book, de Becker emphasized that our ability to explore the links associated with what triggers different “feelings” will define our ability to survive and thrive. Neuroscience in Michael Gershon’s The Second Brain supports the value of intuition, of these “gut feelings,” as more accurately “gut thoughts” in our “second brain.” Gershon shared research that shows that our intestines contain more neurons than our cerebellum; our guts are literally already thinking before we know it. (Brings a whole new perspective to the condition and care of our innards…like when we’re full of s…) Women’s intuition is our deep knowing that a threat is present, even if that knowing has yet to reach our conscious brain.

As I pointed out in “We never have a thought without a felt,” by the time information reaches our consciousness, it has already had to travel through our feeling center. Indeed, the information may have entered our neural network even before that via our gut. In situations where time is of the essence, acting on our gut can literally save us or those we love before we know what we are doing.

So when we feel we are going through something sudden and terrible, we are getting loud signals that we need to guard and protect, that we need to pay attention to what is happening before we our consciousness can apply words and labels to it. Reversing this process is what gets us in trouble. When we think (consciously apply words and labels) to something that might be sudden and terrible, we charge up fear responses that have been programmed or trained into our brains. We then pay attention to what we’ve been told to be afraid of and churn our guts into an acidic mess that garbles any “gut thoughts.”

Even though, as my colleague Brandi Painter put it, “we can’t think our way out of what we felt our way into,” our linguistic (thoughtful study of language) heritage offers clues to breaking the cycles and feedback loops of our American fear factory. It is with an appreciation of irony that I can declare that changing the way we think about fear changes our experience of feeling fear, and that when we think before we feel, we act on a manufactured fantasy rather than what is actually happening.

Word-nerd out.

Dear Brené Brown: Fear is not the answer…

I am a big fan of Dr. Brené Brown. Her courage and grace in not only living her topic but also sharing it with humor and humility is a mage level to which I aspire. That is why I need to disagree with her.

In her book Braving the Wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone (which I read in a single sitting), she takes on the dire situation of our (American) spiritual crisis. I couldn’t agree more that our factionalized, lonely existence is a mortal, potentially existential, threat and means “we’re in trouble in a number of dimensions that may be related, and we need to understand all of them if we want to change that;” and that “(a)ny answer to the question ‘How did we get here?’ is certain to be complex.” I agree 100% and cannot begin to count the number of intersections that show up in this question.

So why does she then spend the rest of the section in an effort to “identify one core variable”? Brené (if I call her Dr. Brown I get distracted by flashes of Back to the Future) calls out fear as the culprit. I get it. I’ve spent over a decade studying fear, too, and am impressed by what the American Fear Factory has accomplished. And it is a factory – manufacturing “fear” the way a turbine manufactures “lightning.”  Fear and lightning/electricity are power and neutral; it is what we do with them that causes benefit or harm.

And this is where I disagree with Brené; fear is not the answer to how we got here. Yes, all those “fear of…” scenarios are real and have real consequences for all of us; however, our basic emotion and power of fear is not at the core any more than electricity is at the core of our digital malaise. It is what it’s been used to do.

Fear is our alert system and we have at least six responses to this primary alert that says, “PAY ATTENTION! THIS IS IMPORTANT!” Vulnerability is important. Getting hurt is important. Disconnection is important. Criticism and failure are important. Conflict is important. Not measuring up is important. Fear tells us this and is core to alerting us to pay attention to these things. But what is happening is that it keeps happening – our alert system is overloaded and then some. Innumerable media channels are blasting us with threats and millions of things that are important – and we can’t attend them all. So we stop attending any of them or focus our fight on the easiest target. When you keep mashing on the alarm button, it gets stuck and eventually stops working.

Brené writes that trauma and violence actually bring us together – for a short time. This is also true physiologically. Our biochemical response that we interpret as fear only lasts for about 90 seconds. If we are feeling afraid for more than 90 seconds, that’s a choice that’s been trained and patterned into us. An alert is not needed for very long and what we do as a consequence of being alerted to something is as varied as humanity. We are not all “fight or flight,” the easy target or disengaging; we are also caring, connecting, faking, and freezing. These other responses offer us ways to heal and reclaim our own buttons.

What if instead of responding to fear – to an alert to pay attention to something important – by trying to destroy or distance what is scaring us – what if we got curious? What if we kept asking empathetic questions about what motivates terrorists – both domestic and international? What if we, as Brené suggests, “talk openly about our collective grief and fear – if we turn to one another in a vulnerable and loving way, while at the same time seeking justice and accountability”? Fear is still present in this scenario, but here we apprehend an opportunity to transform trauma into healing. We need fear to bring our attention to the importance of what we are facing, that is all. After we face it, what we do is up to us.

Because, ultimately, we can’t be brave or courageous if we are not first afraid – if we can’t tell what is actually important to each of us in every moment.

(what did you make of that picture at the top? it is unlikely that you saw the sun shining through the backboard of a basketball hoop – stay curious)

Here there be monsters…

We’ve been taught that fear is the enemy, “the mind-killer,” to be avoided or obliterated. Fear is a monster to be defeated so that we may be free, happy, and prosperous. Monsters – they’re a problem, an old problem. The problem of monsters is as old and complicated as any human story.

Monsters are grossly out of proportion, ugly, smelly, contorted and distorted from anything “natural” we have ever met. They lurk, hide, loom, and jump out unexpectedly. Some appear enticing at first, only to reveal themselves as utterly destructive and, well, wrong. We’re afraid of monsters and we all know what monsters are, even though they aren’t “real”; or too real. Most monster stories are accounts of theft – not just of princesses or gold, but of identity and connection.

The Minotaur was a prince with a birth defect who was banished by his own father to the labyrinth so the father wouldn’t have to be constantly reminded of his transgression. The monstrous son, a tiny boy, was left in the dark – alone.

Medusa was a goddess of those other people, those non-Greeks who were dark and had strange hair. She listened to snakes – which are always bad – who shared direct communication from Mother Earth, in which they made their homes. She was kidnapped by the Greeks and banished with her sisters to an island, severing her connection to her land/people.

Dr. Frankenstein created a monster by stealing life from death.

My friend, Kate, shared the insight that when you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you create a monster; this resonated deeply as I thought about what has happened to fear. Before all the heroism there was betrayal, pain, abuse, abandonment. It was only then that the monsters emerge and must then be destroyed after harrowing adventures and struggles. Other stories tell of similar adventures and struggles that ultimately reveal the monster to be a sympathetic, misunderstood creature or person in pain.

The witch alone in the woods accused of eating children is a midwife willing to defy church teachings to save women in childbirth.

The hunchback seen as cursed by God for his grotesque, cursed appearance is the whipping boy and scapegoat for the sadistic, revered community leader.

The old man who stays in his house and scares all the neighborhood children with his gruff warnings to keep away lost his entire family to violence and is haunted by those images and voices.

These latter stories show us that something or someone can be a monster not because that is what they are, but because of what happened to them; that they emerged because of fundamental, sacred violation. In stories, these monsters are redeemed rather than destroyed…sometimes.

The problem of fear in our culture is related to the problem of monsters. We have institutions that depend on our dependence, which create more fear (reducing our freedom) in an attempt to manage fear (increasing freedom?). In this way, we have been robbed of our most trusted ally, that which made it possible for our ancestors to survive everything that befell them. Once taken from us, the concept of fear has become other than an emotion, it has become a monster. It is a monster that keeps us isolated, venerating our individualism as an unassailable American virtue.

Studies of fear tend toward attempts to count and control experiences of fear that have become obviously detrimental to our efforts to be happy and healthy as individuals and in groups. Spiritual advisors, politicians, educators, parents, “experts,” and various counselors have attempted to reduce the experience of fear to quick fixes and techniques for severe curtailment and/or elimination of fear – efforts to destroy the monster. These efforts are often in response to perceived “problems” with fear, just feeling afraid is seen as weakness. However, most often these problems are the result of the artificial, even pathological exaggeration of our basic emotion into a weapon of control by individuals and organizations which are benefited by our distraction from their efforts to gain even more power and money, with no consideration of anyone’s well-being. The theft must be reconciled and we deserve a chance to reveal the friend within the monster.

Within the maelstrom of super-sized and manufactured fear, we have lost our ability to clearly discern what is actually scary – what we actually need to pay attention to in any given moment. In our fear of Muslims and immigrants, we don’t hear the climate emergency sirens. In our fear of dark skin, we don’t see how our humanity is being diminished. In our fear of missing out (FOMO), we miss sublime experiences of deep connection that takes time. There are many things and people that are truly scary, that we need to pay attention to so we can make choices that keep us and our loved ones safe and, ultimately, alive.

 

So it begins…

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will allow my fear to pass over me and through me.” – Dune, by F. Herbert

So begins the realization of prophecy and salvation for an oppressed people led by a chosen savior with extraordinary powers and capabilities. But there are so many inconsistencies and contradictions in that invocation!

Look: I must not fear. (Okay, that’s clear.) Fear is the mind-killer. (fear=bad) Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. (okay, fear=the most bad ever known ever) I will face my fear. (wait – I have fear? I have the most bad ever known ever?) I will allow my fear to pass over and through me. (now my bad is leaving because I let it…but I must not have it in the first place…huh?)

What if all of that is bullshit? What if the monster of fear is actually our most potent ally in creating the world we want?

Prove it? Okay – stick around.

Invitation: discover, experience, and understand this –

What we’ve been taught about fear is wrong.

I used to be afraid all the time. I was afraid I was unlovable. I was afraid of being left behind. I was afraid that wouldn’t have enough money for retirement and that my husband would take all my money. I was afraid that my friends wouldn’t like me and that I wouldn’t have enough to eat. I was afraid we would all die in a horrible cataclysm and I was afraid I would die alone. All this while living in a vibrant community, a comfortable house with a loving husband, a union job, and a delightful, healthy child. There were also the fears of living in a world that sees women as commodities, less capable of just about everything that isn’t dependent on our physiology. I was afraid to try anything that I wasn’t already good at or anything that was outside the imagination of my white, Midwest-raised parents. Slowly, then suddenly, I was terrified when I realized that I couldn’t feel much else.

I used to think that eliminating fear would open the path to greater intelligence, creativity, and freedom. I adopted a mantra “No fear, no expectations,” when I returned to full-time school after a ten-year gap. Every time I felt afraid as I met challenge after challenge I would ignore or stuff it – including when my mother told me there was no way I would be able to do this and I would literally die in the process. I charged ahead into graduate classes, quit my job, entered relationships, took solo roadtrips, signed off on student loans, and went to my first Burning Man to discover that I was right – fearlessness broke open the cage I’d seen as protection. Slowly, then suddenly, I noticed that below the frenetic activity I had lost my bearings on why I was doing all this.

I understood these to be my only options when dealing with fear – fight or flight. I didn’t have to think about it, it was “natural.” Even as my behavior and priorities changed radically – much to the confusion of those around me – I stayed within the parallel lines of eliminating or avoiding what was scary. I didn’t know any other way to be or to conceive of my experience of navigating a path through life that would keep me alive and functioning.

Slowly, very slowly, then suddenly I discovered that there is more to fear than what I had been taught, than what I had felt. That discovery instigated an exploration of what fear actually is and why we have it. I found how we react, respond, and recount fear shapes our reality, both shared and individual. For example, did you know that we never have a thought without a “felt”? Humans are literally incapable of being objective, of being unfeeling objects in the world.

So I chose to become the subject of a story, of an experiment, of an inquiry into fear. I have found adventure, surprises, guides, and lots and lots of mirrors. Beyond the cage of beliefs and the frenzy of release I have found a space to breathe, a space where I can be with the myriad aspects of fear and be better than fine.

Welcome to a Space Safe Enough for Fear

We never have a thought without a felt…

Whenever we have an experience, however we take in an experience via our myriad senses, it arrives in our awareness already awash in colorful emotions.

Our experience processing network, aka, our nervous system, takes in far more information that our consciousness can handle. We only see a tiny portion of the light spectrum, we only hear a narrow range of sound waves, and we hardly smell anything at all. Our big, expensive brains need a way to receive really important information – that which impacts our ability to protect, provide, and procreate – so we can make effective choices before we even think it.

Thanks to our successful ancestors, we are able to act before we think based on basic emotions. We literally feel before we think as experiences pass through our amygdala (our emotion center) before reaching our cortex, let alone our pre-frontal cortex where executive decisions are made. Regardless of what any scientist, teacher, or parent has ever told you – all of our decisions are emotional. Rationality is useful and requires intentional practice, and it is still colored by emotion. So in situations of stress or danger, our most reliable ally is our most basic emotion.

Welcome fear.

We have few, if any, ancestors who were fearless, because fearless people die early. Fear’s function is an alert or alarm system. Regardless of what we do about it, fear shows up with a neon flashing sign telling us “PAY ATTENTION! THIS IS IMPORTANT!” Whether it’s a jaguar, a speaking engagement, a courtroom, a gun, or a visit from the in-laws – fear gets us focused on what is really important in this moment.

Then we fight or flee, right? Maybe. This is another falsehood we’ve been fed that defies our actual experience and capabilities. We actually have at least SIX stress/fear responses. The fight-or-flight response model was actually based – I kid you not – on experiments in the U.S. in the 1950s exclusively carried out with male…rats.

Now I hold rats in very high regard overall and have known some very kind, brilliant, fine rats; however, they are not human. Humans respond to fear in different ways to accomplish different outcomes. So what are they?

Fight: overcome the source of the fear

Flight: flee the source of the fear

Freeze: stop to assess the source of the fear or allow it to pass by

Fake: change appearance or sound to cause the source of the fear to stop and assess

Care: address the perceived needs of the source of the fear

Connect: establish a relationship with the source of the fear
The first two responses share the basic action of separating us from whatever is scaring us. The second pair both function to buy some time, if possible. The third pair both keep us engaged with what is scaring us. These additional four responses all share the potential for transforming our experience of fear and even transforming the source of our fear. The initial two, because they separate us from the source and experience of the fear, function to reinforce that the source of fear is always scary and, therefore, bad.

We all use all six of these in various ways, frequencies, and circumstances. I know that when I get extremely scared, I get pissed (fight). Seriously – don’t scare me, you’ll get hurt. As a kid and into early adulthood, my chaotic environment taught me to freeze and allow the crazy to go by and maybe not notice me. In other situations where I’m facing a challenge to my worldview, when someone tells or shows me that what I think is true is not, I get curious and connect with the real fear of losing my grip on reality.

When you reflect on real feelings of fear, what do you notice? What do you do? How does that serve you?