Sunday, September 09, 2007

Overcoming Our Greatest Enemy

Never fear shadows. They simply mean that there's a light somewhere nearby.
- Ruth E. Renkei

The content of this quote is almost a metaphor for the lives of many people. They work long hours because they fear poverty. They eat too much because they fear starvation. They get married because they fear being alone. On balance it doesn't make sense, but fear never does.

The association of shadows and fear is a good one. The thing about shadows is that they can easily be made to disappear by producing light. Fear can also be made to lessen considerably when we shine a light on it.

We don't necessarily want fear to disappear completely because some degree of caution is necessary to avoid tragedy.

Like many people, I am afraid of heights. However, I have been up the CN Tower in Toronto, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Empire State Building in New York. When we bought a lakefront cottage with a fireplace, it became necessary to climb onto the roof to clean the chimney. The need to complete that task regularly motivated me up the ladder the first time. Subsequently it became easier and I don't think about it today.

I had to clean out the eaves troughs (gutters) in our two story house, which meant climbing over 20 feet to reach them. My ladder was a bit too short, being only 20 feet itself, but I thought I could get close enough to reach over the eves and remove the leaf litter. The farther I got up that ladder, the more my heart began to jump around in my chest.

A neighbour suggested that I might want to use his longer ladder so I could get up beside the eves troughs. Not wanting to reveal my fear of heights to him, I borrowed his ladder and found that I could get up high enough to do the job. Not only was I motivated to do the messy cleaning job, but it turned out that my problem was not heights so much as my claustrophobia kicking in as I climbed closer to the wall using my own ladder.

While I was thinking about my fear of heights, I couldn't climb high enough. When I thought about a necessary cleaning job, I had motivation. When I realized that it was claustrophobia, not fear of heights, that held me back at first, I was able to climb where I needed to go. Eliminating the claustrophobia as a factor, the job became easier.

I don't have a problem with elevators and I could remain quiet in a small closet for hours if someone were searching the house to separate me from my life. In each case, I shine a light on that shadow of fear (claustrophobia) by finding a motivator to focus on instead of my fear.

When we focus on fear, on the shadows, all we see are the shadows. We empower our own fear by giving it our attention. If we look for the light or turn on a light ourselves, the shadows disappear, or at least lessen greatly.

There is nothing pretty about fear in any form. However, it helps to remember that fear is entirely imposed on ourselves by ourselves. Rarely (except in movies and at theme parks) is fear imposed on us. Even in movies and at theme parks we choose to frighten ourselves. Real fear is like burying ourselves alive.

Fear not only reduces our ability to enjoy life, it's harmful to life. We can only stand epinephrine (aka Adrenalin) rushing through our bodies as we experience fear just so long until our immune system is compromised. That's like making ourselves open to attack from then-lethal microbes. If our immune system is compromised, we have little protection or defences against germs that could destroy us.

Fear is learned. We often don't know where or how we adopted a particular kind of fear. But because it's learned, it can be unlearned. We usually learn fears as children. Unlearning of those same fears often must take place when we are adults. Learning of any kind is harder for adults, so unlearning fear (a different kind of learning) is harder than learning it in the first place. But it can be done.

The first step is to shine a light on the shadow that is our fear. Whatever the fear is, we need to admit it to ourselves, and maybe to others if they matter. Deciding to eliminate the fear is the first step. Following through with the decision is the hardest part.

We wouldn't accept being imprisoned by a spouse, a parent, a neighbour or a stranger. That would be inhumane, a violation of our basic human rights. But fear has us imprisoning ourselves. We need to be as determined and as vigilant about freeing ourselves from our adopted fear as we would be about freeing ourselves from imprisonment by another person.

Say to yourself "I am not afraid of ....... I can do this. I am taking control of myself. I am the boss of myself." Repeat it until it becomes a part of your being, an integral part of your life. Especially say it when you don't have occasion to be afraid of whatever it is. Only when the occasion is not upon you will you be able to adopt the new way of thinking and acting. And only when you repeat the message many times over many days.

Repeat it a few times before you do what you must, what you were formerly afraid to do. Be sure you have motivation for doing it first. You can think about your motivator as you do whatever caused you fear before. Focus on it.

Do it. Then be proud of yourself. You have overcome the most powerful enemy you will ever have.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a book about how to master your own life and help others with their own. Most importantly, it's about how to help children grow into well balanced, competent, confident and unafraid adults.
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