There was a forest at the beginning of fiction too. Its canopy of branches covered the land. Up in its living roof birds flitted through greenness and bright air, but down between the trunks of the many trees there were shadows, there was dark. When you walked this forest your feet made rustling sounds, but the noises you made were not the only noises, oh no. Twigs snapped; breezes brought snatches of what might be voices. Lumpings and crashes in the undergrowth marked the passages of heavy things far off, or suddenly nearby. This was a populated wood. All wild creatures lived here, dangerous or benign according to their natures. And all the other travelers you had heard of were in the wood too: kings and knights, youngest sons and third daughters, simpletons and outlaws; a small girl whose bright hood flickered between the pine trees like a scarlet beacon, and a wolf moving on a different vector to intercept her at the cottage. Each traveled separately, because it was the nature of the forest that you were alone in it. It was the place in which by definition you had no companions, and no resources except your own uncertain self.1
When we’re young, things can get out of control pretty quickly. We experience danger as a distinct possibility that’s “out there somewhere,” and it becomes a notion that stays with us, at some level or another, throughout time. So from a very early age, we’re kind of on alert. The idea that life can be dangerous doesn’t go away just because we become (more rational) adults. And when we carry around the idea that life could be dangerous for many years, even the notion of possibility can seem, well…threatening.
When I was in high school, I loved to go with my girlfriends to weekly dances at our school. I was a pretty good dancer but uncoordinated in sports—that left me a bit self-conscious, and when I was asked to dance, I’d hesitate. I said things to myself like: “They might find out I’m not so great in sports,” “They might make fun of me”—that whole barrage of self-censoring internal dialogue. When we give our fears rein, even the smallest moments can be daunting. Fears arise when we look back, and they arise when we look ahead. Fears arise about ourselves, and about our reception from others. Whatever their origins, they prevent us from living fully. Whether a threat is real (a situation where our survival is at stake—our security, our health, keeping our families safe) or imagined (a situation that might await us, something that might happen—or where we might be made to look foolish, for example), it is all about survival. Those moments of fear and anxiety—with the constriction in our chest, the fluttering of our hearts, the feelings of imminent danger or potential embarrassment—can be overwhelming, because we think some aspect of our survival is at stake.
Perhaps even more than sadness, anger, or disappointment, we find it difficult to deal with fear. Fear can keep us from participating, from doing what we’re capable of—from experiencing and expressing the full range of possibility that’s available to us in being human. The disempowerment, constraints, and stops, however, are not a function of the experience of fear but rather a function of the meaning we’ve added, and the decisions we made, at a particular time in the past. Another way of saying it is that it’s not the fear that is operative, but the automatic way we collapse something that happened with what we say it signifies. It’s that automaticity that keeps us stuck in place, and what has us lose our power. Old circumstances now have the power, not us.
When we stop going for it—when we step back, play it safe, or say we can’t do something—we might avoid the experience of fear for the moment, but at the same time we are reinforcing where we’re stuck. We’re limiting our freedom, and cutting off possibility. Being alive includes risks, threats, and danger—the possibility of “bad” things happening is always there. But in planning our life to avoid those things, we’re essentially avoiding life—obviously not the wisest way to be alive. The Harvard Business Review might not be where you’d expect to read about fear’s pervasive presence, but the following appeared in a recent issue and I thought it apropos: “I get the willies when I see closed doors.” That is the first line of Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, one of the handful of superb novels about business. Heller’s hero and narrator, Bob Slocum, a middling executive at an unnamed company, is driven nearly mad thinking that decisions might be made behind his back that could ruin his career and his life, or might merely change things that are, while odious to him, at least bearable. Without transparency, Slocum is a quivering wreck. He’s not alone. As the second chapter begins, Slocum says, “In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid. Each of these five people is afraid of four people (excluding overlaps), for a total of twenty, and each of these twenty people is afraid of six people, making a total of one hundred and twenty people who are feared by at least one person.” The company, in other words, is a pyramid of potential panic, ready to topple when someone whispers, “Jig’s up.” 2
I’m always amazed how Heller gets right to the absurdity of a situation, this time pointing to the momentum that fear can generate all on its own. And it doesn’t just automatically disappear because we’d like it to. But when we can separate out what happened from the meanings we assigned, we no longer have to be “at the effect” of whatever happened. We don’t have to work on top of it, push it down, accommodate, or adapt to it. We survived the first time, the second, third, and so on—completing a past fear includes recognizing that we would survive if the past repeated itself. When we stop trying to resist the past happening again, things shift. In separating out what happened and the decisions we made back then, we clear up a lot of the disempowerment and lack of freedom.
There’s a big difference between being realistic about what happened once, and being resigned or stuck that things have to continue to be some way now or that they just are some way or they’ll be that way again. Instead of wishing we could change our past experience—a futile exercise—we have the freedom to choose our relationship to whatever it was, and that’s the beginning of building power. That’s the beginning of creating possibility. Possibility invites us into areas of creativity, of uncertainty, of paradox and surprise. It invites us to bring things into existence that haven’t existed, take a step to one side or another, unsettle old realities. Our own identity, say, or the certainty of some fact, the behavior of others, or even the meaning of words can come to be seen and understood in new ways.
It takes enormous courage to try out new ways of being in the space where fear used to be, and by choosing to do so, we come to be authors of our own experience. Choosing requires courage—and courage leads to the ontological question of being. Courage is rooted in the whole breadth of human existence, and ultimately in the structure of being itself.3 Courage can show us what being is, and being can show us what courage is.
1 Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built, pp. 24-25
2 Thomas A. Stewart, “Seeing Things,” Harvard Business Review,
February 2008, p. 10.
3 Paul Tillich, The Courage To Be.