It is possible overcome fear when facing real physical danger, and there are some very compelling reasons to learn how, but it’s not easy. Having the right philosophical scaffolding can help, but in the end it will always be up to you.
This planet is, and has always been a dangerous place.
The adrenaline you feel when standing on the edge of a cliff, or when you realize that you almost just stepped on a poisonous snake, or when you finally come to terms with the fact that the government you live under has become a militarized police state… that feeling is there for a reason.
Fear is our physical body recoiling at the prospect of annihilation. Fear is a biochemical alarm system which helps keep organisms on this planet alive by triggering a fight, flight or freeze response. If the attacker can be defeated, fight, if you can outrun it run, if you can’t beat it or out run it freeze and play dead.
This alarm system has persisted in the gene pool and will continue to persist because in many life or death situations it is highly effective. Fear, however, is a double edged sword.
Panic can send a herd of buffalo stampeding over a cliff, and it can make a crowd of humans behave in much the same way. If you need evidence of this, just take a cursory glance at the pages of history, or better yet, take a closer look at current events.
Fear doesn’t make you smarter. In fact studies have shown that terror literally shuts down the rational and logical parts of our brains.
Now it’s obviously not a good idea to face dangerous situations, or to make important decisions with the most useful parts of our brains turned off, but consider the implications of having an entire human society operating at this level.
Trouble is, the ruling classes have always understood that it is in their interest keep the peasants in a perpetual state of fear and insecurity. Those who are able to dictate the nightmares of a nation, usually end up dictating everything else.
The stakes are higher than our emotional well being.
The ability to control our fear and reduce or eliminate its hold on the mind is what allows us to take INTELLIGENT action in the face of danger. Having full use of one’s brain also helps to distinguish between real and imagined threats. This skill is often referred to as courage.
Courage doesn’t just happen randomly. A man doesn’t just get up one day and perform a triple twisting flip off of a cliff out of the blue. Chances are his heart was pounding like crazy the first time he stood at the edge of the high dive when he was a kid. The primary difference between an expert cliff diver, and someone who passes their whole life paralyzed by their fear of heights, is that one of them made themselves jump, and kept doing so until it became second nature.
You might gather from this example that the way to defeat one’s fear is to face it. This is true on one level. If you are afraid of snakes, and you handle them long enough, the fear will subside. The same principle applies to most individual fears. Trouble is, fear is like a multi-headed hydra. Cut off one head and another can grow up to take its place. Furthermore, it is often not practical or even possible for us to overcome each little phobia and worry through direct exposure. For example it would be foolish to attempt to confront one’s fear of a dangerous disease like Ebola by contracting it.
To overcome fear in a long term, sustainable way, you have to go to the root.
But what is the root of fear?
The root of all fear, even seemingly petty and insignificant fear is, death. Social anxiety for example can be traced to the primal need to be well integrated into one’s family and tribe. Being rejected by one’s peers was a death sentence in ancient times, and still is today in some societies. This primitive legacy leaves most humans unable to resist the forces of social conformity and authority.
Being unconscious of the root, makes the irrational byproducts impossible to process.
This underlying fear of death is the body of the hydra. Facing it effectively is the key to freedom.
We all live under the shadow of annihilation, whether we consciously acknowledge it or not. You are going to die. I am going to die. In three hundred years every single one of us will be dust. No one leaves this place alive, and there is no getting around that reality (though some convince themselves otherwise).
Do you find that thought disturbing? Does it fill you with dread and despair? Whatever you do don’t look away. Hidden within that discomfort is the secret of life.
You see death is the ultimate councilor. It is the ultimate point of reference.
Will this thing that you are afraid of matter in three hundred years? In most cases you’ll find that the answer is no.
Regardless of how dire your situation may seem, no matter how serious your personal problems may be death will erase them for you someday. Once you fully integrate this reality, you’ll find that it is a relief. Just a short internal glance at one’s tombstone can be used to release those surface level fears. Take a deep breath, let it go, and do what needs to be done.
We are dust in the wind.
There is absolutely no sense in poisoning the precious little time that we have with inner turmoil. You’re going to die no matter what, so you might as well look your death in the eye and smile like a kid who’s been caught with their hand in the cookie jar, but eats the cookie anyway.
But what if the answer is yes? What if this issue that’s keeping you up at night WILL matter in three hundred years? Well, what would you do about it if you weren’t afraid? What would you do if you knew you only had a year left to live? Answer that question and you have found your mission in life. You have found something bigger than yourself. Something worth dying for is worth living for.
Are you are afraid of walking your path? Then take another look at your grave.
Ironically confronting your death can also help you avoid it. Those who have accepted the inevitable actually have a tactical advantage over those who are terrified of it. Courage is a wild card which can turn the tables against impossible odds. (300) A small group of highly motivated, fearless individuals can accomplish far more than an army of cowardly and obedient sheep.
Remember, we can negotiate the time table to some infinitesimally small degree, but no matter what we do our lifespans are short like sparks on their one fleeting trajectory of existence.
You want to really live? You want to make that spark count? You want it to start a fire before it goes out? Then don’t sleepwalk passively towards the gallows.
Stand up, look your death in the eye and dance like you’re never going to dance again, sing like you’re never going to sing again, stand up while your heart is still beating and hold your child like this moment is all you have, because it is.