Teaching Yourself and Others How to Learn From Fear, Not Fear It

What are you feeling now? Just ask yourself (or your children, students, friends) the question and listen to and feel what comes up. It’s almost four weeks after the election. Have your feelings changed? How? Promise yourself to be gentle and listen not just to the words but the feelings and sensations that shadow and anchor every word you utter. Listen not just to what appears but how you respond to what appears. Feel your jaw and shoulders, your chest and belly. Where do you feel any tension? What is the quality of it, sharp, heavy, like pins and needles, hot or cold? Notice how your body expands with the inbreath, and lets go, settles down with the outbreath. Notice the sense of calm and quiet that can emerge when you step back and be aware of thoughts, sensations or your surroundings. Then breathe into the area and move on to notice another sensation.

 

This is one way to begin your day. When you act with the totality of your being, you are in harmony. Most fear arises from sensing a need to defend your self from an inner not an outer threat. You might be fighting your own inner battle or maybe you try to end any confusion you have over what is “the right way” by eliminating anyone who adds to the confusion or the complexity. When you do need to fight an actual external threat, study yourself and the situation and know the others involved. You can’t fight what you can’t see.

 

Many of us are feeling anxious and afraid. Many have pointed out that this election is different from any other. When there is so much that is unknown, fear is normal. Fear can be both a friend and an enemy, depending on how you treat it. It is an enemy if you turn away from it and fear it. It is a friend if it energizes you to wake up, notice, and learn from a threatening situation. When you turn away, you feel isolated and jittery. When you reach out to others, you more easily calm your thinking and step outside the dominion of fear.

 

Anxiety takes fear a step further. You add to a fear of the future a sense that you might not be able to face it. You feel inadequate, or fear being exposed as inadequate. You think the situation will mark you and turn others away, so your future might be ripped away. You feel like building a wall around yourself. But if you take action, you feel more open and powerful. If you join with others in taking action, you let go of fear and anxiety, isolation and powerlessness.

 

How you act also depends on how you think about discomfort. If you think it is wrong or abnormal to feel discomfort or stress, you will greet such sensations with fear and anxiety, and turn away from them. Only if you recognize that discomfort can be helpful can you allow yourself to be aware of it. If you notice the sensations of fear and anxiety before they get too strong, and recognize them for what they are, you can act in ways that utilize their energy without them dominating you. You learn from them and let them go.

 

This time of anxiety and uncertainty can also provide the opportunity to learn more about compassion. Compassion is the motivation, the energy to act to reduce suffering wherever you encounter it. When you do this, you might not even think you are being compassionate. You act because the action comes from a deep sense of who you are, in this moment; it is the only thing you can honestly do. You sense what and who is there with you, what feels right, uplifting—or harmful. Boundaries drop away along with fear and anxiety. You are basically selfless in that there is no intermediary between the sense of another’s pain (or your own) and the motivation to reduce it.

 

You can never know all the results or consequences of your actions, so please don’t act solely for some future political or social goal. As many say, you can’t focus only on the ends and forget the means. Such actions are divisive. But you can study your intentions. You can aim to do the best you can, in the way that fits you. Your actions come from your sense of rightness, not from being bullied into doing it.

 

Likewise, you can recognize the limitations and humanity of others, including anyone who would be a leader. Especially when you’re afraid, it is easy to project onto others mythical qualities, an intelligence, ability or moral quality, positive or negative, that is supposedly greater than your own, and thus let leaders make the decisions for you. You know this, so recognize it when it happens and let it go with laughter. To see what is in others you must know it in yourself. And if you feel called to be a leader, recognize that your wellbeing depends on the wellbeing of the vast mass of others. A diversity of other people needs to live in your heart as your guide.

 

A good friend and I were in a bookstore the day after Thanksgiving. He was reading me a funny passage from a book on Hillary Clinton’s childhood, and we were laughing. A woman standing next to us looked up, a bit startled, with some fear in her face, and said, “How can you be laughing at such a moment? I am too terrified to laugh.” I told her I understood. But that I deal with the terror better if I laugh. If I can laugh, I don’t get stuck on any thought or concern and can think more clearly about what to do. She smiled slightly, unsure. We all talked for another moment, and then went our separate ways.

 

So, I am trying to be gentle and kind to myself in these complex and difficult moments, and I wish you the same. And remember, when you are with others, they might be feeling the same way you do, but in their own way. So be kind to them, too. It might help all of us figure out how to best resist a future of hate and fear.

 

Dreaming of A New Movement

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe it really happened. I live in a hilly rural area in central New York. I look out my window. The sun is shining. The apple tree in front of my house still stands. Birds still fly. But somewhere, down the hill, maybe above the homes of neighbors I barely know, there is a cloud, a cloud I can only see out of the corners of my eyes. The cloud gets darker each time I listen to or read political news.

 

When I first moved here more than 40 years ago, my wife and I, and the group of people we moved here with, were the Hippie-radicals. We bought the land our neighbors and their gun club enjoyed as a hunting area. Maybe they thought we came here to deny them their freedom to hunt wherever they chose. There were tense moments when we had to escort armed hunters off our land. There was even a time we were threatened with being shot. Many people of color and LGBT people unfortunately know this threat much more intimately than I do.

 

But there was a movement then, a base of support. I would have been more frightened if I was alone. And there were increasingly good moments with the neighbors over the years. For example, once my wife and I got caught in a snowdrift and a woman down the road helped pull us out. And now, we know each other and are good neighbors if not friends. And this is what I hope can happen now, a movement of the majority of Americans. By majority I don’t just mean the 50% of the electorate who voted for Hillary, but those who would have voted for Bernie or just didn’t trust the system at all.

 

Mr. Trump uses his own form of terrorism, one we have seen too often in history. Acts of terror are carried out to spread fear through a populace and lead a country, especially a country claiming to be democratic, into a frightening double-bind. Anger and fear can lead a people to call for measures of revenge and protection: violent revenge not only against the specific people who carried out the attack but the religion, culture and anyone who even looks like the people who gave it life. Protection can include all kinds of measures to defend against further attacks. But as we learned from Edward Snowden and subsequent revelations, protection and revenge can lead to over-reaction and the destruction of the rights and liberties necessary to keep democracy alive. To protect democracy, we end democracy. That is terrorism’s goal. That might be Mr. Trump’s goal.

 

To eliminate the inhumanity that is ISIL requires studying and untangling the massively tangled web of beliefs, suffering and oppression that gave birth to it. To eliminate the threat that the new President represents requires the same. One aspect of ISIL is the absolute belief in the rightness of its ideology as well as its mission to destroy anyone who gets in its way or has different ideas. Mr. Trump calls for locking up or suing anyone who opposes him.

 

Spread enough fear and you can break the ties that bind us together. It can provoke people to hold on too tightly to their ideas of how things must be, degrade the value and examination of truth, and lose sight of the humanity of others. Society is held together by the most precarious of ties. It is not just buildings and institutions, but relationships, ideas, empathy and dreams. Mr. Trump spreads such fears.

 

Of course, his rhetoric has softened after the election. We don’t yet know exactly what he will do and must listen carefully to what he and other Republicans propose. But we also know that anyone who has spoken as he did in the election is not to be trusted. Even if, as some claim, his words were a tactic to gain power, such a means to power exposes, to some degree, his ends.

 

Fighting the ideas of Mr. Trump means not becoming who or what we oppose. To quote Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” It is too tempting to yell and assign blame, to hold too righteously to anger as our identity, and thus become like Mr. Trump. As many people have said, those of us who abhor terror and the politics of fear must fight not only against hatred but for democracy, for the rights, equity, humanity, and compassion that should characterize a government and are our best weapons against the terrorist ideology of Mr. Trump—or ISIL, for that matter.

 

One strategy we might use is for each of us to create a small, caring group dedicated to deepening our own education, developing mental and emotional awareness, and committing ourselves to act when necessary—it would help us all to find balance and limit the reach of our fears. Such groups can take the work seriously and also support us in playing and finding beauty in the world. We need to think as clearly as we can, and the greatest aid to clear thinking is energetic commitment to a deep examination of issues, combined with kindness and joy in being together, in being alive. Much of the news is depressing but that doesn’t mean we need to deny our selves or our friends joy.

 

So, I hope we find a way to improve the way we care for, support and educate each other, and not let fear drive us apart.

 

*Also: For some hope, read this article on student responses to the election of Mr. Trump.