The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself
Oleh : The Edge Malaysia, Zakie Shariff
I did not plan to write about fear. This article was born in the long heart-to-heart talks in the coffee shops of Kota Bharu and on long walks with close friends. It is attempt to understand the going-on around us, the fears, the hopes and the search for an eventual solution.
It is an attempt to unravel the feeling of helplessness and, yes, that cloud uneasiness that follows every Malaysian Today.
The growing intolerance, prejudices and other wedges that are trying to pry our society apart have generated a sense of fear in many of us. Some of us are afraid. Very afraid. We have taken to self-censorship because we fear what we say may be construed as mischievous and subversive.
And yet, we wonder what will become of this beautiful verdant land of ours if we let these civil evils perpetuate, and we fear for our children. Will it mean that our children will inherit a harsher, less-friendly nation? Will they thrive as we did or will they merely survive? You see, these are real fears that evolve from the unknown. And I surmise: unknowns breed uncertainties, which in turn breed anxiety, and that ultimately breeds fear.
As the ground under us – the grounds of personal security, fairness and even common sense slips away, the fears in our bellies shout out: Stop! Retreat! Pull back and take no risks. But why do we accept these assault to our intelligence as a given? Why do many of us not speak out against them? What lies at the root of this acquiescence?
Fear. It is fear that stops us. For many, it is the fear of being different, of standing apart from others if we refuse to go along. And it the fear of that unknown land we will be entering if we listen to our hearts and our common sense that stops us.
Consider this: Evolving eons ago within tightly-knit tribes amid dangerous species bigger and fiercer than we, we learned one thing well: on our own, we were toast.
In the jungle, alone, we did not stand a chance. Tigers, poisonous snakes and crocodile awaited the lone human. So, banishment was sure death. Little wonder that not to fall in line with the modern-day equivalent of the tribe, to say “No thanks” to our fear-driven culture, to say “I have a better idea”, can be unthinkable.
At each of these prospects, fear is triggered, telling us to stop. The unknown is dangerous, and being different might get us booted out of the tribe, which we learned way back in our tribal days meant death. So we cave in, we pull back.
We feel like rabbits frozen still in the grass, believing that if we just duck into the trenches of our private lives, go along and keep quiet, we will be invisible and safe. Well, maybe not safe, but at least as safe as we can be in this scary world. And this vulnerability is exploited by those that can.
Yes, fear is old and automatic and in our bones, but that’s not the whole story.
We feel more vulnerable not just because leaders lay on the frightening language. We also also hit daily with scary messages of all kinds, from images of escalating violence in the world’s current hot spots to crafty advertisers playing on our fears of everything, from crow’s feet on our faces to crime. Potential killers of every shape and size swarm around us: exploding airplanes, budget deficits, ozone holes, and possible poisonous haze – hot your breathing masks, everyone?
In our tribal past, we feared the tiger, the storm or drought, things over which we had little control. But for the most part, that’s no longer true now. We’re being made to fear. Fears are being actively, intentionally whipped up. What set me in this direction was a glimpse into a speech that George W Bush gave to justify the Iraq war of 2001. His words were, to me, down right chilling. In one of his 44 consecutive statements about the crisis, shortly before launching his attack, he said, “At some point, we may be the only ones left”, paused, and added, “That’s okay with me”. That’s okay with me?
Old Dubya what not the only leader inclined towards fear-inducing rhetoric – some of our local leaders are guilty of that too. They lay is on thick: from racial discord (us versus them), economic Armageddon, to possible blood on the streets because it makes us the public, fearful. Thus, “welcome to fear factor” – where you are controlled by those who can invoke in you a sense of helplessness and doom.
Only there’s one big problem: we know that living in fear, trapped by it robs us of life. Human beings weren’t made for this state; we evolved for something better, much better. We Homo sapiens never would have made it to seven billion strong if we were not by nature curious problem-solvers, actors, creators, being who love to take risks, to live exuberantly, to aspire to what is beyond easy reach.
Our future may depend on whether we can achieve a radical shift in our inherited view of fear, whether we can learn to see fear with new eyes.
I have come to believe that we each can let go of our culture’s limiting ideas about fear that hangs heavily in the air – dangerous ideas that block our free expression, thwart our happiness, and threaten our planet and we can replace them with new, freeing ideas.
But here’s the rub: to create solutions for our lives right now, and to reverse this fear-including regime, requires two things of us:
- That we do something different from what we are doing today, which is just another way of saying we must walk into the unknown; and
- That we be different from what we are today, which by definition means we risk separating from others.
These two fears, of the unknown and of being different, seem to congeal into the bedrock that maintains the status quo. But I have come to see that it is our ideas about fear that are all important. They can shut us down, or they can allow us to discover our power to create the lives and the world we want.
I began to see how fear is not necessary our protector. It can trap us into creating a world none of us wishes for or can long afford. In this new age, staying with the tribe takes on a new meaning. Eons ago, it meant life, now, it means death, death for our spirits, and ultimately even for our planet.
Fortunately, we human beings can lose our long-programmed responses to fear. We have evolved a complex consciousness that allows us to look at ourselves with some objectivity. We can visualize how powerful our “freeze-fight-flee” response to fear is and, at the same time, we can see fear itself as a source of energy. The million-dollar question is: How can we reroute the power of fear to our advantage?
Fear is an energy that comes within us, not from outside. It is neutral. So,we can channel it into fear, paranoia or euphoria, whatever we choose.
I believe we can relearn our fear responses. Years of training will allow us not to freeze in crisis but to think – in fact to nimbly rethink all the systems and spaces we live in.
Rather than a warning that something is wrong, fear in certain circumstances can come to mean that something is just right, that we are doing precisely what is true to our deepest wisdom.
Imagine our tiger. When the tiger sees first. But instead of lunging blindly in defence or in attack, it recoils. The tiger pauses a moment, targets its energies, and then it springs.
We can do the same. We can harness our would-be fears, harmonise our energies and channel them into courage.
We have the power. Our very survival as a dynamic, visionary nation and our own happiness depend on whether we choose to claim it.