Fear is the Mind Killer

Take one more look at what you found old and in it you’ll find something new.” – Martin Gore, Depeche Mode, One Caress. I recently began reading Dune by Frank Herbert, another novel that I’ve returned to after first reading it many, many years ago. Great stories meet you where you are as time and experience enable you to see them differently and my return to Dune has been entertaining and enlightening. Like the young protagonist, Paul Atreides, this sleeper has awakened to the mind-expanding adventure that Herbert published in 1965. The side message here: return to a meaningful novel, you won’t regret it.

At a few points in the novel, the hero of the story references a litany taught to him by his mother:

“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.”

Science fiction nerds unite! This little ditty has undoubtedly been recounted millions of times since 1965 by knowing readers facing their own fears. One really curious thing about Herbert’s classic litany is that it hits directly at the far side of fear as it uses the words “killer” and “death”; words that strike at the heart of fear’s darkness as they evoke the ultimate finality.

In a recent homily, Fr. Mike Schmitz references four things that trigger our fear response: 1) uncertainty, 2) struggle, 3) attention, and 4) change. Considering these triggers, I’m struck by the fact that they really all boil down to uncertainty. It is the unknown that frightens us. Whether it’s the unknown of something in the dark, the unknown result from an encounter with something known, or a sense of loss of control, fear grips us when we are faced with the uncertainty of what’s next. Our reaction? Fight, flight, or freeze.

Why Do We Fear?

Why do we fear? Fear is actually very practical as it is a survival response. Seth Godin describes our “lizard brain,” the instinctive response center in our brain designed to help us stay alive in the face of very real dangers. Fear comes upon us when perceived danger presents itself: physical, emotional, spiritual, social, financial. The lizard brain calculates our risk and sends urgent instructions for immediate mitigation.

Of course, such practical safe-keeping has a downside as it tends to run to the extreme ends of risk avoidance. Unlike our ancestors, most of us are not facing life or death situations daily as we go about finding food and shelter. The result for many of us is the non life threatening anxiety of uncertainty that gets in the way of joy. Our instinctual response to danger has evolved into the stress and frustration that results when we feel we are not in control. The danger has become discomfort and a lack of tolerance for the unknown.

Sitting just below the headlines on COVID and the “Great Resignation” are the alarm calls over our nation’s collective mental health. The pandemic has intensified an already growing trend toward anxiety and a host of disorders associated with coping with a world that is increasingly complex and empty for many people. Sitting behind much of the stress is a growing uncertainty. in the dark of the future, we wonder about our health, our safety, our ability to pay our bills, and our place in a very hostile world sitting beyond our control. Fight, flight, or freeze.

Of course, most of it centers on how we “feel.” We feel insecure. We feel unsafe. We feel uncertain. We feel out of control. We want quick and easy solutions to eliminating those feelings. We move to remove those feelings of uncertainty. Perhaps we retreat from other people. We put protections in place. We assert ourselves over our environment. We become more and more intolerant of real and perceived unknowns. The feeling of security becomes a burning need. The unknown must be known. The uncertain must be certain. And when it’s not, the struggle becomes very, very real.

Frame of Mind and the Little Death

In that place, fear is the mind-killer. Fear becomes the little death that obliterates. And so much of it centers on the story we tell ourselves and those around us. This is so important to understand – for yourself and for those around you. Fear moves us or freezes us.

“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 had a sense for fear and its deadly nature. Whether the threats are real or imagined, fear confronts us with its own reality. How do we face it? How do we let it pass over and through us? How do we let it go so that only we remain?

At the heart of Herbert’s litany is an acceptance. We must first understand fear as a feeling that passes. It may not pass easily or quickly but it will pass. We may return to it but the time will come when only we remain. Seeing this as its own reality is hopeful – it encourages us as we know that we can endure most anything for a time. With acceptance, perhaps we can seize the initiative in our struggle with fear.

Let’s begin with our self-talk, Fear is insidious in that it whispers, and sometimes yells, incessantly. What are the stories we tell ourselves about the things we face? What is truly in our control? What is the worst-case scenario? What do we see beyond the worst? We can choose how we see the things that frighten us. Often our story of feeling safe and secure is no more certain than our feeling of insecurity. It is likely that we exist somewhere between certainty and uncertainty on most things. Understanding that reality allows us to surrender a bit of our own sense of control, and with it, the need for more.

If we are surviving without complete control, without complete certainty, perhaps we can survive with more uncertainty. Maybe we don’t need as much as we thought we did.

Knowledge, Action, and Others

Shifting our mindset may not be easy and may require something more concrete. What else can we do in the face of our fears? Often, fear stems from a lack of understanding. We fear what we don’t know. Making the unknown known is a proactive way toward coping. Knowledge is a flashlight in the dark. When we demystify the unknown, we put ourselves into a new reality. We cage the lizard brain with the reason of understanding and awareness as we uncover the hidden. In this sense, knowledge is power and this power emboldens us. It makes us feel less uncertain.

After a bit of education, action is an effective hedge against fear. Our instinct for fight or flight is a powerful survival tool and the action of it can strengthen us as we seize the initiative on uncertainty. Movement literally gets the blood going and engages us physically – fear may still be there but action heightens our faculties and points toward hopefulness. To freeze is to let fear dig-in and extend its roots. Entrenched fear becomes harder to remove. Action helps us battle the feelings and the energy of it fuels optimism.

Fear can drive us into isolation and increase uneasiness. We are social and meant to be with others. Alone we are weaker and more susceptible to the doubts brought on by uncertainty. Isolation is a killer. Together, we feel safer. Together, we doubt less. Together, we find other answers and see other possibilities. Together, the dark isn’t so scary. When we pull together, we start to think about how we might protect others and less about the dangers to ourself. Other people help get us beyond the fears of the self and into a space where we can focus on something other than our own uncertainty.

There is another benefit to banding together: faith. With others, we look beyond ourself and toward something greater. When it isn’t just about us, we become part of the bigger story. When we are part of something more, fear retreats before purpose or mission. The uncertainty of the individual gives way to the certainty of the belief. The unknown becomes a little less important in the face of what it is known and belief emboldens us to focus on a different sort of certainty.

Cultivating Courage

What else might we do to alleviate, address, or manage our fears? Can we cultivate courage in the face of uncertainties? Start to build a tolerance for uncertainty by starting small. Prove safety in the knowns and build slowly to defend against the unknowns. Press against the tension of uncertainty in small steps where possible and surrender to little risks along the way. Pressing up agains the fear can strengthen us as the tension builds our endurance like muscles pushing against resistance. Along the way, we begin to discover that fear may not be the little death we originally feared.

We are not going to escape fear. it is necessary. However, we need to remember that rarely is anything as good or bad as we think. Doubt will haunt us and uncertainty will always confront us. There are still choices. There are still knowns. And we can still find some way forward. Hope lies in knowledge, action, and others. With faith we can lessen its grip and move on. Struggle and resistance will press upon us but we are not helpless. Fear need not have the final word.

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