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The Other Side of Fear

Updated: May 29, 2020

When I was a child I was afraid of spiders. I think a lot of people are -- there’s something about their silent stealth and their sticky web-spinning-ways that just creeps people out. We had a musty, damp basement in the house I grew up in on the South Side of Chicago that repulsed and fascinated me. On days when my brother and I would really get on each others nerves he might threaten to keep me down there, close the door and block it, leaving me with a pounding heart and a pounding fist on the door. (The light switch was on the kitchen side of that door, and it was pretty dark down there.) I hated this darkness, this loss of control and panic, and I hated the spiders. I was seized by fear.

One summer day with nothing at all to do and only 5 stations on the TV anyway (the early 80s, y'all), I decided I no longer wanted to be afraid of the spiders. I found as many empty pickle and jam jars as I could, and I went about trying to catch spiders. After many failed and terrifying attempts, I figured out a system and caught a few, and then I took them all out into the shining light of the summer sun and examined them. I just stared at them, turning the jars over and over, until I was not afraid anymore. Then I let them go. Outside of course.

I learned that when you make friends with fear, it doesn’t rule you. I became curious about the thing that so terrified me; I studied it, saw it as interesting, even beautiful and allowed it to have its own power and “thingness” that had no power over me. After that, I decided I could sit in the basement -- first on the stairs, and then on the floor -- and just feel afraid in the dark, and then watch it pass, and watch it return, in waves, until there was only quiet. I learned to listen and discover secrets, even power, and I was not afraid. I did this all summer long when I was 9 years old, and I taught myself that the fear and darkness does not win. It only wins if you let it. The bonus feature was that I encountered the beauty of the spider, the goodness of listening to the quiet dark. In the center of the fear was everything I wanted: mystery, beauty, power, safety, and even tenderness.

The former Prince of Bel Aire, Will Smith, is known to have said, “On the other side of your maximum terror are all of the best things in life. Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”

And what exactly -- in a word -- is that thing that lives on the other side of fear? What, in one word, is everything we want? It’s joy. Joy is different from happiness, as happiness is dependent on a thousand external factors, according to the theologian Michael Himes, SJ. Joy is the interior conviction that what I am choosing and doing is good even if it does not make me happy or content. There is a rightness to my work, my choice, that comes from the fact that I have a deep knowing, informed by true stories, that what am about in the world is my work to do. Being happy cannot co-exist with being frightened, disappointed, lonely, dissatisfied or rejected, but being joyful can. Whether or not a particular way of living makes me happy is less relevant than whether or not it keeps me in my joy, sourcing the conviction that this is a profound way to live my life and spend my time and talent.

My friend Julie told me that when you are ready to commit to something difficult or scary -- change a pattern, start a habit, reach a goal, chase a dream -- there will be fear. Just because you are beginning does not mean you are not afraid. You can choose to let fear sit in the back seat, the front seat next to you or (worst case) let it drive. Since it WILL be with you, why not put it in the gas tank as motivation and let it fuel your drive on the road to someplace new?

Are you afraid of that thing? Is fear in the car with you? Okay. "Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear," said Mark Twain. Go toward it, go right into the center. Use it. Everything you want is on the other side.

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