No…not that word. When it comes to “F words,” the socially naughty one really doesn’t pack much punch. It’s a rude, lazy way of letting off steam and not much more. You say it in exasperation. You voice it with explosive frustration. You yell it when you feel powerless. And when you’re done, nothing much has changed. It’s just a meaningless jumble of letters with a bad reputation.
But there’s another “F word” that can make a mind-blowing difference. That word is “fear.” As a word, we don’t pay much attention to it. But as a way of life, it is devastating.
Most of us assume fear is an emotion that’s automatic and unavoidable. In some ways, that’s true. If a strange pit bull is standing guard over your mailbox and snarling, it’s probably a good idea to be afraid—and maybe even to postpone seeing what the mail carrier left for you that day. A dangerous situation rightly engenders fear. The genuine feeling makes us focus on making a decision to act—to decide whether to put up a fight or run.
But what if you spend your whole life being afraid of all dogs? That’s nowhere near as helpful as a cue. I had that fear and there were good reasons for it initially. (I had some scary experiences with dogs as a young child.) But hanging onto that into my 40’s? That’s something different than bonafide fear.
Fear that comes from danger in the immediate environment is essential to personal safety. Fear of what’s going to happen tomorrow? That’s a different thing. It’s this pervasive, ongoing state of fear that can make a mess of your life.
That fear doesn’t even come from the same place. It’s not a reaction to cues from your surroundings. It is your mind trying to convince you that there’s danger simply to enjoy the drama of it. This is “ego fear” rather than useful fear. Ego fear is built on the idea that you should be able to keep yourself safe at all times. That you can and must avoid all bad things. Sorry, but that’s just silly. Life happens. You deal with it. Trying to keep life from happening just impoverishes your experience of it.
Ego fear steals the future—no matter what you’re afraid of. Fear of the unknown makes you unwilling to venture into it. Fear of not getting it all right makes you not try anything new. Fear of being rejected denies you the opportunity to feel accepted. This kind of fear is not your friend.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous quote “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” is actually part of a longer statement that reads “So let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.
Yes. Unjustified. There is no sabre tooth tiger ready to pounce. The danger is manufactured in your mind out everyday life on the planet. It’s a personally created bad dream—no more real than the monsters under the bed when you were a kid.
This fear is a choice–a really bad choice.
This kind of fear drains the fun out of life. It makes every waking moment one of vigilance, whether the fear you’ve manufactured is of germs, success, or economic Armageddon. Being afraid of whatever is going to happen next takes the delight out of whatever really is on the horizon.
Fear creates stress, so it’s hard on your heart, your immune system, and your overall health. Buying in on unnecessary fear is irresponsible. Yep. It’s no better for you than smoking or a diet of Coke and Doritos.
Saddest of all, fear keeps us from evolving as human beings. We don’t become the happy, satisfied people we’re meant to be because we’re too worried about what might go wrong to get on with living.
The great Roman philosopher Seneca put it well: “Our fears are more numerous than our dangers, and we suffer more in our imagination that in reality.”
We don’t need to suffer. We need to stop worrying and really live what each day brings. Some days might include a pit bull or two, but not always.
Mary Lloyd is a speaker and consultant and author of Supercharged Retirement: Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love. For more, see her website www.mining-silver.com and her blog http://mining-silver.com/retirement-planning/.