Is the Greatest Fear in Life the Fear of the Unknown?
I was doing some reading of a favorite author, recently, when I ran across this quote of his:
And that, really, is the choice, isn't it? Do I hold on to that which is safe, secure, and known, or do I let go of what is secure and move toward that which is unknown, exciting, and calling to me?
Every morning, when you first wake up, life is whispering two questions in your ear:
- Who are you, really? and
- Do you have the courage to be who you really are?
And we feel so called, so pulled, to attack that which tugs at our heart. We so want to go after that path, that dream, that calling, that person, that truth, that life that is speaking to us from the core of our being.
But, far too often, we don't. We don't go after it. We hold back. We wait. We ruminate and stew. (And, I'm all for rumination; but there's a place and time for it. And the place and time is not when you know what your calling is, when you feel it tugging at your heart.) We then tell ourselves that the real problem is, "Oh, I'm such a procrastinator." But the answer is, no, you're not a procrastinator. That's not, and never is, the real problem.
The real problem -- the real reason people hold back from pursuing that which is calling to their heart -- is fear. Always. Fear. Always.
I regularly tell clients, If you're trying to figure out why someone is doing something (or not doing something) you just don't understand, ask yourself one simple question: "What's the primary fear driving the behavior?" (And, again, it's always fear.) Then speculate what the answers might be and go with the one that seems to make the most sense. And the deeper you can go in what the fears might be, the more likely you are to nail it.
Now, as this ties to Hillman's quote above, one of the grand fears that keeps us from pursuing that which calls to us from the depths of our soul is the fear of what we'll lose. We pull back from the decision, because the cost of pursuing that which we most want seems to high.
Decision = de- means off, down, or away,
-cision (think incision or scissors) from -caedere which means to cut
Decision literally means "to cut away"
Part of what makes decision-making so doggone hard is not the going after what we want, but it's the letting go of that which we don't want, or don't want quite as much. It's the 'cutting away' of the lesser option that is so difficult. It's the cutting away of that thing, person, truth, or path that we've been married to for so long that is so difficult, because it's one less option to have now, once it is cut away. It is the loss of the familiar and the secure, as Hillman points out. And that can be very rattling to a whole lot of folks. This is true in no small part because life is easier and feels safer when we have many options in front of us and/or when we are clinging to that which we've always known.
Don't even ask me how many times I've counseled women who are terrified to leave a marriage, not because she fears her husband will hurt her. Quite the opposite. She fears hurting him, and so she stays stuck in a marriage that no longer fulfills her and is quite arid and lifeless. Or, she fears being on her own.
Or, she fears just living without that which she has always known. And by that I mean not just the husband or a particularly way of life, but the belief system that kept her in a marriage and life that was no longer making her happy. Perhaps she always saw herself as someone who never quits, or someone who would be married to the same person forever, or someone who would never hurt her kids (specifically by causing them to grow up in divorce). And to now move apart from -- or cut away -- that former way of believing about herself and about life is a monumental task. It really is. It's always easier for an outsider, a family member, a friend, or some objective observer to say, "You should just do x" than it is for the actual person doing x to do that task. It is profoundly difficult, and takes time, to first grow tired of and then cut away, and finally remake, one's own life belief system. Parenthetically, most people are quite unaware that is what they're doing as they move through life; and that is why my work with people moves so fast, because this is precisely what I do with my clients -- dive down into the core belief system, or operating system, so to speak -- and thereby make years worth of changes in a very, very short time.
Don't even ask me how many men and women I've counseled who are on the cusp of major change, career-wise, but are simply terrified to take the leap. A great part of the terror that keeps them ON the cliff, rather than jumping off it and into the new life adventure, is the fear of losing that which is secure. (Of course, there's the fear of going Splat! at the bottom of the cliff from failing. But, we'll get to that momentarily.) It is the fear of cutting away that which is known, in favor of that which is unknown. And can be, indeed, a herculean endeavor. The larger the thing you're letting go of -- i.e. the more central it was to your core belief system, the greater the task in cutting it away.
"If you're falling....DIVE!"
- Joseph Campbell
As an aside, this is why pain is such a powerful motivator in life. It often grows so great as to give us the courage to overcome cutting away something that has been safe, secure, and treasured. I regularly tell clients, "Change will not occur, until the pain gets bad enough." For it is only pain that has the power to force a change in your core belief system. The old belief system -- about life, about yourself, about people, about God/deity, about family, about what is important, about the world, etc -- has to become so confining, so painful, so suffocating, so debilitating as to drive the person away from it, as to give the person the courage to both cut it away and pursue something new and unknown.
The Splat! or Fear of the Unknown
In addition to the fear written about by Dr. James Hillman (above) -- letting go of that which is secure and familiar -- there is a second fear. It is the one fear that a great many people consider the greatest fear in life, superseding even the fear of death. It is the fear of the unknown, the fear of moving forward into some bold, new venture.
Even if a person could get past the letting go, or cutting away, of that which is familiar, safe, secure, known, even if a person's pain had gotten so bad that they could overcome that, there still is that big ogre of the future staring you in the face. What keeps people from taking the proverbial 'leap of faith' in life -- diving off that cliff of security, familiarity, even monotony and pain -- is that they have no idea what the heck is out there. They have no idea if they will succeed. Or, rather, they have no certainty that they will succeed. And it is precisely that need for certainty that kept them married to the previous career, life path, spouse, or value system for so doggone long. For far too many people, the certainty of crap outweighs the uncertainty of happiness; the certainty of suffocating outweighs the uncertainty of possibly failing; the certainty of numbness outweighs the uncertainty possibly nothing changing (except eliminating the major negative energy source in one's life); the certainty of standing on hard ground (crummy as it may be) outweighs the sheer terror of not just falling -- even diving -- but going Splat! in a gargantuan failure.
See, what makes choosing to follow the calling of your soul so darn hard is that you might fail...or you might not, or you might fail and succeed and fail again, and maybe succeed again. It's that damn uncertainty! It's the utter lack of familiarity. It's the lack of knowing!
What makes life so hard is the lack of knowing. The reason we don't attack life and get after it is because we don't know how it will turn out. We pull back from big risks -- and as we get older, we even start pulling back from medium risks, and then eventually smaller and smaller risks. Risk-aversion increases as we age, more often than not. The desire for security -- nay, the desire for familiarity and the sense of safety it confers -- increases. That is why dreams fade away. It's not procrastination or bills. Nah, it's the sheer terror of letting go of the familiar and diving into the unfamiliar and unpredictable. The fear of the unknown.
Now, if you're like most folk, you'll do everything you can to control determine and control the variables. And that's not a bad course to take. For, the less variables in your future, the less uncertainty....and also the less terror of failing. Again, this can be a good thing.
But, the other side of it is that attempting to exert too much control on your future, especially when it's a major life shift -- i.e. not allowing for fluidity, flexibility, and unexpected blessings and learnings -- causes you to play tight rather than play loose. As in sports, so in life: when you're playing tight, there's no way in heck you're playing at the top of your game. As an aside, this is why so many athletes and musicians give their best performances often when they're ill. Their mind is distracted by the illness and so they are playing loose. Even if they're not at their best physically, they're mentally relaxed or at least distracted, almost not even caring if they succeed or fail. And that's a powerful place to be in mentally.
So, the sweet spot to be in, when making a major life change, is to not fear the failure. It is to be willing to fail. And again, if one's pain from the existing life has gotten bad enough, you're far less likely to be cowed by potential loss or failure, whatever form that failure might take.
But that fear of the unknown is a whopper, isn't it?
And it really requires trust, above all else, in order to overcome it. I'm not just talking about trust in God or trust in the universe or trust in others to support you or trust in anything, not even trust in yourself, per se. To be able to walk upright and confident into the unknown requires trust in one thing, above all else. And this is something that really can only be acquired by life and its hardships. It is something that is one of the natural by-products of pain and potential (though not guaranteed) blessings of age. Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote that everyone experiences suffering in life, but the people he feels sorrow for most are those whose pain does not come until much later in life -- the people who seem to live a charmed life. For when it comes, and it will come, it is perceived to be not a part of the normal warp and woof of life, but as an anomaly, to be run from. To experience pain early in life is a gift of the gods, particularly when you choose to learn from it and allow it to steel you. The power to overcome the fear of the unknown lies in the capacity to trust that no matter what happens I'll be okay.
When you have experienced a decent amount of pain in life -- whether from job, relationships, family, money, health, etc -- and subsequently recovered from that pain, you become stronger. You become a bit less fearful of future pain. Perhaps your belief system changes, too, and you begin to see yourself as a survivor, or even as someone who not just survives but comes out stronger from cancer, hardship, divorce, cheating, loss of a job, death of a dream, etc. And once that deeply internal belief system changes, once you realize you'll be okay (as in, "Holy Sh-t! I realize I'm gonna be okay, really no matter what crosses my path"), you're not nearly as intimidated anymore. Sure, you still get scared by the unknowns, but they're not nearly as debilitating as they used to be. You don't freeze up anymore in the face of them. You don't play tight anymore. A new relaxed, or loose, space is discovered.
The grand blessing of going through hell in life
is that it's not as scary the second time...
and certainly not as scary the third time.
Pain brings power.
Yes, the fear of the unknown is a very crippling disease. It possesses the power to keep a person stuck in a crummy life potentially forever, or at least keep a person stuck enduring the unendurable and undesirable for a very, very long time.
Yet, for all the notoriety fear of the unknown has acquired it is easily and unequivocally eclipsed by a far, far greater fear.
Fear of the Known
The greatest fear in life is not the fear of death (walking death or never really living is a far greater fear), nor is it the fear of the unknown. No, the greatest fear in life is showing the world who you really are.
Because we all experienced in our youth being scorned or criticized or ignored when we expressed who we were or expressed a truth, and because the soul is so impressionable at little ages, nearly every person alive lives in sheer terror of showing the world who he or she really is. Living one's truth is terrifying. It is far easier, far safer, to live a false version of oneself than to live authentically and deliberately. For, it is far easier and far safer to be rejected for a fake version of oneself than to be rejected or criticized when living authentically or expressing one's real truth. Being yourself is a tremendously sensitive, vulnerable place to be in.
Again, when most people expressed themselves (in being, saying, doing, and attempting to become their true self) in their childhood, as children do, they got criticized, ignored, or redirected. Every kid experiences it, to greater or lesser degrees. And depending on the severity and/or the duration of the criticism, rejection, or ignoring, it causes a child to stuff his or her real self into a box and pack it down deep inside, after which he/she starts being whomever she has to be to gain praise, or at the very least avoid criticism.
As we grow and age in life, that fear of criticism and/or being ignored -- i.e. that fear of being reminded that I suck or that I don't matter -- is so great, so colossally overwhelming that people will stay trapped in an unhappy life, marriage, or path, no matter how great the pain.
Nah, the greatest fear in life is not the fear of the unknown; it's the fear of the known. You know exactly what your mother or father will say, if you pursue your dream or this next major path that is calling to you. You know exactly what your best friends will say. You know exactly what your boss or co-workers will say. You know exactly what your husband (or wife) will say. You know exactly what those voices in your head from childhood will say.
Nah, what keeps you from pursuing your greatest truth and happiness is not the fear of what may or may not happen (the unknown), but what you know for fact WILL happen. It's those words, those looks, that scorn, that insidious doubt that will be conveyed. THAT is what you most fear!
It is the fear of the known that cripples people. The single greatest fear in life is fear of showing the world who you really are, because deep down you're terrified of what people will say. Specifically, you're terrified of what a small handful of people will say, how they will treat you, and the negativity they will bestow on you, your dream, your new path, your vision -- i.e. what you need for your life in order to finally be happy. More often than not, it is the voices of one's past, the voices in one's immediate circle of friends and family, and to a lesser degree the voices of cultural norms that keep people locked in lives of suffocation and gross unhappiness.
It is not the fear of failure that keeps people locked in an unhappy life, but the fear of what people will say when you fail. Kids and adults who are given wide berth to both quit and fail do not fear quitting or failing. Therefore, they're more willing to take risks, act boldly, and go after big dreams. They're more willing to get out of bad marriages, bad careers, and bad life paths. Mostly, they're undeterred by the unknown. In fact, they see the unknown as the great and grand adventure of life. Wandering -- even leaping! -- into the unknown is what they live for, because that's where the fun is, the success is, the happiness is, and, ultimately, the sense of ALIVENESS is. And that's what we all seek -- that sense of rapture, that sense of feeling fully alive, on fire, and moving in the wonderful direction of a noble pursuit.
But the only way through the fear of the known, not to mention the fear of the unknown and the fear of cutting away that which no longer works for you, is to
- experience enough pain on the old path,
- trust that you'll be okay, no matter what, and
- simply choose aliveness, rather than slow and certain living death.
Happiness and a fear-driven life are inversely correlated. The greater the fears, the less the happiness. And unless you can pass into and through your fear of what people will say, you will never know true and lasting happiness.
"You gotta commit. You've gotta go out there and improvise and you've gotta be completely unafraid to die. You've got to be able to take a chance to die. And you have to die lots. You have to die all the time. You're going' out there with just a whisper of an idea. The fear will make you clench up. That's the fear of dying.'
-- Bill Murray, actor
Bill Murray is talking about acting in this quote, but it clearly relates to all of life. You have to be willing to die, so to speak, willing to die to your fears and who you were. You have to be willing to live forward, moving only on the inspiration of that whisper of an idea, the single pulse of your truth rising up within you.
So, again, the two questions life is whispering in your ear: Who are you, really? And, do you have the courage to be, say, do, and become who you really are? For that is where happiness is to be found.
-- Sven Erlandson, MDiv, is the author of five books, including 'Badass Jesus: The Serious Athlete and a Life of Noble Purpose' and 'I Steal Wives: A Serial Adulterer Reveals the REAL Reasons More and More Happily Married Women are Cheating.' He has been called the father of the spiritual but not religious movement, after his seminal book 'Spiritual But Not Religious' came out 15 years ago, long before the phrase became part of common parlance and even longer before the movement hit critical mass. He is former military, clergy, and NCAA Head Coach for Strength and Conditioning; and has a global counseling/consulting practice in NYC, NJ, and Stamford, CT: BadassCounseling.com