Make Fear Your Teacher

thom_rutledgeby Thom Rutledge

What will happen tomorrow? Will your life go on as usual just as you expect, or will someone space out, run a stop sign, broadside your car and change your life forever? Maybe tomorrow is the last day of your life. Hell, maybe today is. Maybe your doctor has bad news. Will there be a new and improved sniper? Maybe in the Midwest this time? Maybe in your town? Will terrorists crash another airliner into a building? Will there be biochemical warfare? Will the economy take another nose-dive? Will you make it home from work tomorrow? Will you ever see your best friend again?

Lots of questions. The answer to each of them is the same, and you know what that answer is. "I...don’t...know" is the answer.

I have a good friend who was walking around in perfectly good health (as far as he knew) one morning and by mid-afternoon he was in surgery getting a quadruple by-pass. The interesting thing about this fellow is his attitude. The first thing he said when he woke up in the recovery room post-surgery was "Man, I’m glad we caught that in time."

I have another friend who doesn’t need emergency heart surgery in order to be miserable. He is more likely to walk around in perfectly good health worrying about the possibility that he might have a heart attack someday. The difference between my two friends is that one has an active inner-voice constantly telling him everything that could possibly go wrong, and my other friend either doesn’t have such a voice, or more likely, he doesn’t pay much attention to it. Many of us have this inner-voice. In the context of current events, we can think of it as an inner-terrorist.

The truth is there is no greater terrorist than the terrorist-within. In fact that is what the terrorists in the big wide world count on activating: the terrorists within us. Ignoring what is going on in the world will not rescue us from fear, and neither will starting a war. Fear is a natural part of the human experience, and if we stop running from it, hiding from it, or trying to overpower it with machismo, we just might learn something from it.

When we are paying attention, fear is an excellent teacher. Depending on how we listen to the voice of fear, we can either become inspired to live this present moment more fully, or we can be dragged away from the present moment entirely, left to concentrate instead on all that might go wrong tomorrow. And if tomorrow is uneventful, then we can use that valuable time to fret about the next day.

As morbid or negative as this may sound, begin with the knowledge that we are all going to die. Most of us will not choose how we will die, but we all choose — every day — how we will live. Sometimes we make these choices by default rather than decision, but nevertheless the choices are always ours to make. Let fear be a reminder to live your life in congruence with your own personal value system. When you feel fear creeping in, remind yourself that the healthiest fear is the fear of not living a life — no matter how short or long — that you can be proud of. Instigate the "Regret-Reduction Program" in your life, living each day in a way that you will not have to regret later.

The essence of what I believe — and what I hope we can together spread around the world — is this simple truth: fear is the natural companion of human self-awareness. We cannot refuse delivery; we cannot return to sender. How we choose to respond to fear is the ultimate measure of who we are.

Practice tuning into fear in this way, and you will transform something you used to run from into one of the greatest teachers of your life.

Thom Rutledge is a psychotherapist and author of Embracing Fear (Harper-SanFrancisco).