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Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair
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Chapter Seven - From Fear to Joy
Fearless Jack is a folktale hero with an odd affliction: He canít feel fear. Because he is fearless, he is also joyless. He canít be happy until he is capable of trembling with fear.
So Jack sets off on a journey to find fear. He travels to a land where the king has promised his daughterís hand in marriage to anyone who will spend three nights in the enchanted castle full of horrible creatures. No problem for Jack. The first night, his sleep is interrupted by three huge, ferocious cats. He drives them away and returns to a sound slumber. The second night, he is confronted by a man with his torso cut in half. The two of them play a game of skittles with the bones of two skeletons. Jack wins the game and chases the halved man out of the castle. On the third night, he matches wits with a giant who threatens to kill him, pinning the giant to an anvil with his own ax. Jack sleeps like a log and emerges the next morning, having cleansed the castle of its monsters.
Success in his mission earns Jack the hand of the beautiful princess. But he is still unhappy, because he has not yet learned to feel fear. So the princess consults with the local wise woman, who knows just what to do. She instructs the princess to rise before dawn and draw some water from the fountain in a golden jug. When Jack is asleep, she is to throw the water at him, catching him off guard so that heíll awaken in a fright.
This is how the story ends: The princess does as she is told. Jack wakes up, trembling with fear. From that day on, he is completely happy!
Fearless Jack is not a popular folk story. Itís virtually unknown. I found it in a childrenís book of folktales years ago, and Iíve never met anyone who ever heard of it. Itís not a tale that has stuck with us because Fearless Jack is not exactly your typical male hero. His journey in search of fear, in our culture, would be regarded as singularly unmasculine. Why would a man want to find and feel fear? How can fearlessness be an obstacle to joy? The story seems to have it backward. In a fear-negating culture, we think of fear as the obstacle and fearlessness as the solution. Having no fear is the quintessential mark of courage.
But the courage in this story is not about fearlessly killing monsters; itís about breaking through emotional numbness and recovering the capacity to feel. Killing monsters is no problem for Jack, because he is numb. And being numb is a problem for anyone who wants to live with joy.
Fearless Jackís problem is our problem. The problem with fear is not that we feel it but that we donít feel it. Fear-avoidance and psychic numbing are common ways of handling fear in a culture that continually triggers this dark emotion and yet shames us for it. When we are numb to fear, we are oddly unhappy.
Again, this idea seems to have it backward. Isnít this the age of anxiety? Donít we all walk around fearful? And doesnít our fear get in the way of love, freedom, and happiness?
According to recent estimates, approximately 50 million people in this country suffer from phobias at some point in their life. Some of these phobias are episodic, but others continue and get worse throughout the life of the sufferer. This doesnít include the millions more who would be diagnosed with one or more ďanxiety disordersĒ: obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, acute stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, anxiety disorder due to a general medical condition, substance-induced anxiety disorder, and anxiety disorder not otherwise specified.1
Indeed this is the Age of Anxiety. This mental state is far more widespread than depression in the general population. The ďshapeless anxietiesĒ van Gogh alluded to more than a century ago have become epidemic. But anxiety is not synonymous with fear. Fear is a discrete and powerful emotion with a particular referent, while anxiety is a generalized state of unease. We fear something; weíre anxious about everything.
There is also a difference between fear and phobia. We may fear sending our kids to school after a rash of school shootings, but we send them anyway. The difference between this kind of fear and a specific phobia is that if we are phobic about sending our kids to school, we donít send them. If we are phobic about planes, we donít fly. If we are phobic about enclosed spaces, we avoid elevators, and so on. Phobias are specific, extreme, and incapacitating. Put a snake in front of someone who has a snake phobia and he will break out in a sweat, have difficulty breathing, tremble, become lightheaded or nauseous. His heart will race as though he were in the jaws of imminent death, and he will have an overwhelming need to flee. These are the same somatic responses he would have if he were confronted with an immediate threat to his life. Most specific phobias of this kind are irrational because the trigger is not in fact a threat to oneís survival. (We are all familiar with the more common phobiasósuch as fear of flying, heights, or enclosed spaces. But specific phobias can be very arcaneófear of colors, for instance, or fear of chickens.)
While it would be comforting to think that all phobias and fears are irrational, obviously this is not the case. The threats to survival in our era are numerous. Global warming, environmental pollution, nuclear and biochemical disasters, and terrorism are not individual but global threats. But this doesnít mean they donít affect us as individuals! In relation to these threats, it has become almost impossible to experience fear in the old individualized way that we once did when being chased by a wild boar. Our fears are rational, largely transpersonal, and overwhelming. They are also largely denied. In this unprecedented world context, fear is continually triggered and benumbed. Isolated in our own skins, without a community in which our fears can be shared, validated, and addressed, the authentic experience of fear in our time has become almost impossible.
We canít heal what we donít feel. The alchemy of fear is out of reach until we can learn, like Jack, how to feel our fear. When we donít know the contours of our fear, when we canít experience it authentically or speak about it openly, we are more likely to be afflicted with anxieties and phobias, panic, obsessive-compulsion, psychosomatic ills, and all kinds of controlling, destructive, and violent behaviors. Those of us who donít know how to feel our way through the real fears that haunt us; or who are not threatened by the immediate, in-your-face fears that plague millions of people on earthófears of starvation, war, homelessness, disease, pervasive violenceóhave replaced the alarm of authentic fear with the host of ďanxiety disordersĒ that have become epidemic in our time.
Copyright 2003 by Miriam Greenspan