Embrace fear as a tool to learn

Though warm, the autumn night was strangely starless. Despite the darkness, Lloyd and I walked the quarter mile driveway with ease.

“Fear is a question: What are you afraid of and why?” — Marilyn Ferguson, American author, editor and public speaker

Though warm, the autumn night was strangely starless. Despite the darkness, Lloyd and I walked the quarter mile driveway with ease. The stroll had become a nightly ritual and we knew every hill and hollow. Max was not walking it with ease. Max was terrified. Unfamiliar with farm life, Max seemed frightened of everything: cows, pigs, farm equipment and especially the darkness. He kept bumping into Lloyd and me as we shuffled along the dirt road.

“Hey, guys,” he said. “We should head back to the house.”

“No way,” replied Lloyd. “We’re walking to the mailbox.”

The mailbox was just over a mile from the farm site. The reassuring glow of the yard and house lights quickly disappeared after we breasted the first in a series of small hills. By the time we finally reached the mailbox, Lloyd and I were both wishing that we had returned home as Max had suggested. He was becoming more and more annoying. Every sound prompted him to grab onto one or both of us. A couple times he even screamed.

We were halfway up the driveway on our way back home when a coyote howled. “What’s that sound?” squeaked Max, gripping the arm of my jean jacket.

“That?” Lloyd nudged me with his elbow. “That’s a timber wolf.”

“Timber wolf?” said Max, now frenzied. “I’m scared of timber wolves.”

“Best to stay calm then,” I said, playing along. “They can smell your fear.”

“It’s like a dinner bell,” added Lloyd. “Ding. Ding. Lunch is served!”

I sensed that Max was close to panicking. I was about to tell him that we were only teasing when he bolted off into the darkness, arms flailing — screaming at the top of his lungs.

“Max,” I yelled, making a grab for him but missing. I paused to get my bearings then started to run after him. I resisted, knowing we were approaching a low area in the driveway where a culvert drained runoff from one side of the road to the other. It had been a wet year and a sizeable pond had formed to the west. Open fields ran along either side of the driveway. I felt the first pangs of fear when I realized Max could truly become lost in the night.

Lloyd reached in his pocket and pulled out a packet of matches. He struck one then cupped it in his hands. The small flame cast flickering shadows onto the dirt road. I called for Max a couple times but got no reply. As we approached the culvert, Lloyd struck another match. I could hear the sound of running water. I fully expected to find Max floating face down in the pond. “Max,” I said, and then listened. I heard what sounded like a whimper. Lloyd lit another match and I could see something in the ditch. It was Max, his pants soaked, sitting with knees pulled up tight against his chest. He was crying and shaking.

We had a great deal of explaining to do when we arrived home — in particular, to his mother when she came from town to pick him up. Max never returned for another farm visit. It’s easy to frighten people who are already afraid. Down through history, governments and organizations have used this knowledge to their advantage. Even today, many people live in a state of fear. Sometimes that fear is legitimate. Other times, fear exists as a vague uneasiness or indefinable anxiety that seems to permeate every aspect of life. When we live in fear, the line between what is a real and perceived threat becomes blurred and easily misconstrued.

Generalized fear or anxiety can be the result of agreements formed early in life. Perhaps when you were young and impressionable someone in a position of authority shared a self-limiting/self-esteem-damaging belief with you. Maybe you had an experience that created an unrealistic fear and now you’re terrified of going through the same experience again. Imagine being told you’ll never be good enough or that no matter how hard you try, it will always end in failure. Imagine you have accepted it as true. The error in judgment appears obvious: you’re agreeing with something that isn’t factual. However, unless you bring awareness to this agreement, it will continue to stand and all subsequent experiences will be filtered through it. In other words, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: what is expected tends to be realized.

Most of us have made hundreds of such agreements, and navigating through life has become difficult. Many of our agreements contradict each other so it’s no wonder anxiety takes hold so firmly. Fear prompts a variety of reactions, including controlling and manipulating behaviour, avoidance of self-responsibility, an inordinate desire to exercise control over situations and people, perfectionism, avoidance of conflict or confrontation along with self-deception.

Consider this alternative: whenever you are struck by fear, you are standing at a crossroads: one path leads to further confusion and the other to freedom. Think of fear as a positive, a beacon pointing the way to a new opportunity — an invitation to learn, grow and experience life on a higher level. When you succumb to fear, you inhibit your growth — it’s that simple.

Perhaps the late Peter McWilliams, best-selling author and activist, expressed it best when he wrote, “To use fear as the friend it is, we must retrain and reprogram ourselves. We must persistently and convincingly tell ourselves that the fear is here with its gift of energy and heightened awareness so we can do our best and learn the most in the new situation.”

Embrace fear as a tool to learn, grow and transcend early programming and perceptions. Do so and you can stop running from the timber wolves that exist only in your mind.

Murray Fuhrer is a local self-esteem expert and facilitator. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca