When I encounter fear I’m like most people, I either run from it or pretend it isn’t there. The majority of my encounters with fear aren’t primal or life-threatening. Fear manifests itself through looming deadlines, uncomfortable confrontations with friends or family, or a deep-seated existential dread of my own life’s insignificance. Currently, my medicine cabinet consists of two unhealthy extremes. Furious, unrealistic to-do lists or complete submission to vacuous procrastination.
Pema Chodron, in his poignant essay Smile at Fear, presents the choice we have when facing fear differently. Chodron insists that we must ask ourselves, “Do we smile, open the door, and go forward bravely into the uncertainty and groundlessness we fear, or do we go backward, trying to solidify things again and cover our fears in ways that only make our life worse?”
A few weeks ago, this choice could not have been more clear. Covenant Prep had us attend a team-bonding event at a ropes course nestled in a forest west of Hartford. Our final challenge was to walk across a thin log suspended 40 feet in the air. Two teachers went at one time, meeting halfway across the log to negotiate an awkward pass-by. Everybody had their turn, everybody survived. We weren’t done though. “Who wants to try it blindfolded?”, the instructors asked in a tone that was more instructive than inquisitive. A few seconds passed without a volunteer. My stomach lowered. Finally, one of our more adventurous teachers volunteered. Then, as an almost out of body experience, I heard my own voice stammer, “I’ll go.”
I double-checked the hooks on my vest. Everything checked out but more than a little doubt remained. My co-workers slowly shepherded me to the tree. I reached my hands out, grasping outward until I felt the welcome sensation of bark on my hands. I climbed upward, wondering whether anyone noticed my shaking hands and stiff neck. After an agonizing minute, I felt my way to the top. Then something unexpected happened. Faced with the choice to, “go forward bravely into the uncertainty and groundlessness we fear”, or to climb backwards and down, I stepped forward, cracking the slightest hint of a smile. With each step, the small knots in my stomach and throat disappeared. I made it across unscathed.
Fear is more manageable when presented as opportunity, a door to open. Chodron discusses fear in greater detail, describing it as a, “dot in space that captures our attention.” When faced with fear, Chodron urges us to praise ourselves for recognizing fear and to smile at the opportunity. Next time you face fear, will you reach backwards for comfort and stability or move past it with a smile on your face?