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Friday, October 24, 2014

Refusing to live in fear

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” ~ Frank Herbert, Dune

"Cowardly Dog" drawn by Adam

We've all experienced fear - a basic human emotion with a very basic function: to keep us alive in a dangerous situation.

If we're being chased by a lion (or in Adam's cowardly dog scenario, a hungry fox), a flood of adrenaline that heightens our senses and prepares us to run away fast is an extremely useful physiological response. Also helpful are the safety lessons learned from fear (like "don't go into that dark cave") that might keep us alive when similar situations come up in the future.

But everyday life is not often about outrunning predators, and if you ask people about their fears, lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) are not usually at the top of the list. Instead, our fears focus on things that are less tangible - failure, loss, pain, the unknown or unexpected, separation from loved ones - diffuse fears that can last much longer than a few minutes of fighting for your life. When these are the demons you face, an adrenaline-fueled "fight or flight" response is not so helpful.

A common topic in therapy sessions with my students is that emotions aren't wrong or right, they're simply how you feel, although it's useful to be able to name an emotion, and then logically understand how it connects to your actions and choices in the larger world. When you choose to let fear stay in the driver seat of your life, logic doesn't just take a back seat, it often jumps right out of the car ... and fear and panic-filled choices rarely take you where you really want to or should go.

"Running Scared" picture drawn by Adam

So what to do?

"Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death." ... these words from Frank Herbert's novel "Dune" often run through my head when I find myself letting fear get the upper hand in my life.

Fear kills joy and robs us of happiness in the present tense. It may sound cliché, but today is the only time you actually have - the past is memories and the future is imagination. If you make the compromise of saying "well of course I'm worried, look at what happened yesterday" or "anyone in my situation would be scared witless of what's coming next", you choose to lose the moment you're in. You sacrifice present joys, no matter how small, for the pale satisfaction of being proved "right" if the worst should come to pass in the future. The tough part about this is that we seldom understand, in the moment, that this is the choice we are making.

This was a lesson we had to learn early on in our family life. Our second child, our daughter, was diagnosed with cancer shortly after her first birthday. My husband and I were a few years out of school, barely used to being "mom" and "dad", no financial resources (actually negative financial resources since we'd been living on a post-doc salary) and two children under the age of three. It's not easy to fight fear when you're living in a paediatric cancer ward and all that you hold dear is in jeopardy - even harder when you both have the science background to understand exactly what the diagnosis means and how slim the chances of a positive long-term outcome are. So we had a choice, actually we had to choose again and again, day after day ... to live happy, to live our lives as a family in and out of the hospital to the best of our ability. And you know what? After the initial shocked weeks, we did it. I look back on the pictures from that time and I see us laughing and playing and having fun ... when we had to cry, we cried at night in the dark ... no one could have given our daughter a happier life than we did. And we didn't get a miracle ending, and we didn't dodge the pain and sorrow that came with losing her, but we have no regrets about the full and joyful life we lived while we had her with us.

No one knows how long they have with the ones they love. What a shame to waste days in a cloud of fear and anger and "why me?". Cry when you must, seek out solace from friends and family, but don't live in darkness and sadness. Find the joy, hold on to the funny and the sweet and the dear bits. Love the day you're in, love the people you're with, love the life you have. Look fear in the eye, stare it down and refuse to let it rule you ... and expect to choose and choose again each day.

Because today is the only day you have.

... and let me end with a quote that I heard a short while ago, at the beginning of another difficult time in our family ... I would love to tell you the source of this quote, or even the exact wording, but no matter how I search, I can't find it ... so let me just attribute this piece of wisdom to "unknown" and hope that you might find it as helpful and hopeful a piece of advice as I did:

"Doubt your fears at least as much as you doubt your hopes and dreams" ~ Unknown

(... and live the h*ll out of the day you're in)