So . . . why are you scared?
When you feel fear, the answer to that question usually seems obvious. Your heart is pounding because you’re on your way to a job interview. Or you just learned you’re expecting your first child. Perhaps you’re about to climb into an airplane that’s so small you have to tilt your head to get into your seat. Or there’s a global viral pandemic that’s ongoing.
We typically assume our fears are generated by this or that situation. We feel certain that if we could just change the circumstances — or, better yet, if some higher power would kindly rearrange them for us — we would feel better. Yet according to psychotherapist Richard Schaub, PhD, such assumptions not only ignore the real source of our discomfort, they can actually feed our anxieties.
In The End of Fear: A Spiritual Path for Realists, which Schaub cowrote with his wife, Bonney Gulino Schaub, RN, MS, he suggests that instead of believing our fear is a sign that circumstances need to change, we can reframe it as the result of our “innate love of life.”
Schaub believes that fear is triggered in part because we love life so much. We don’t want to lose it, and this makes us hypervigilant about threats — a vigilance that often manifests as outsized, anxious reactions like lashing out or shutting down.
Such reactions may work to keep us alive in dire circumstances (precisely what the survival instinct is designed to do), but day to day, these protective responses can diminish the quality of our lives and relationships.
“Until we realize that our fears originate in our own awareness of inevitable change and loss,” Schaub writes, “we blame them on causes outside of us, convinced that other people, places, and things are making us feel vulnerable and threatened.”
He offers case studies to show how efforts to avoid our mortality — or, as he regularly refers to it, our vulnerability — ultimately backfire. A successful businessman is unhinged by a midlife crisis as he begins to sense that no amount of material success will keep him alive forever. A woman who has long found comfort in her faith discovers it isn’t enough to protect her loved ones from harm. Conversely, her husband, who had always taken refuge in his rational skepticism, finds that logic fails him when he’s faced with loss and change.
None of these very human attempts to handle fear — materialism, blind faith, entrenched skepticism — will provide the promised peace, Schaub believes. This is because each one relies on the idea that loss and death can, with the right formula, be cheated.
Does accepting vulnerability doom us to a life shrouded in a gloomy awareness that this is all going to end anyway? Absolutely not, says Schaub. In fact, if we can more accurately identify the real causes of our fear, it can help relieve us of the stressful experience of repressing our feelings — and allow us to become considerably more at ease.
“I consider fear to be absolutely normal, and something to be respected, so I don’t pathologize it at all,” Schaub says. “It doesn’t become a disorder for me. I think there’s a potential in fear to get to something good. It’s not like you just have to tolerate fear. You can find a skillful way to work with it, because it is, it exists, and it isn’t going away.”
He teaches simple methods to help quiet the mind and accept vulnerability as a natural state. They include taking a walk around the block while looking carefully at everyone through the lens of vulnerability — understanding that each person you see is just as susceptible to loss, change, and death as you are. This exercise has become altogether more salient during the coronavirus pandemic.
Another involves “turning toward fear with affection” and simply thanking it for trying to protect you and keep you living this life — one that, apparently, you really love. This fundamental desire for one’s own life can be a wonderful thing to notice, and it can wake us up to the present moment like nothing else.
“Surrender [is] an active decision,” Schaub writes, “an act of strength and courage, with serenity as its reward.”
Ultimately, cultivating an appreciation for our vulnerability teaches us that life can be enjoyed even if it can’t be controlled or prolonged forever. This attitude can also keep us from taking the people we love (and even the people we don’t like) for granted, since we don’t know how long they’ll be around.
Finally, it allows us to use fear, which usually springs up during moments of uncertainty, as an invitation to become curious — instead of worried.
“We believe that something bad or difficult is going to happen, but really, it’s all unknown,” Schaub concludes. “There’s a lot of unnecessary suffering about what might happen.”
When we understand the nature of fear, Schaub maintains, we can learn how to use it to wake ourselves up to a deeper love for life.