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The Opposite of Fear

By Celia Coates

How are you feeling these days? What kind of mood have you been in? When I asked myself these questions, I couldn’t answer right away, but then discovered I was feeling an edge-y restlessness that was really a form of fear. There are so many things to be alarmed about – the changing climate, continuing threats from the Covid virus, and trouble with how expensive necessities are becoming. And that’s just the short list. So much that we once could take for granted seems to have become dangerously unsettled.

Some of my caring friends have suggested that I turn off my old-fashioned television and give up reading about current events. That’s what they have chosen to do so they won’t have to pay attention to the constant flood of upsetting news. I simply cannot do that. I would rather find a balance somewhere between being blind to what is going on and wallowing in the misery of it all. I think we must be open to painful thoughts and emotions so we can figure out how to manage them and to use the information they give us so we can most fully live our lives.

Here’s the approach to fear suggested by a song in THE KING AND I,
“Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect and whistle a happy tune so no one will suspect – I’m afraid.
While shivering in my shoes, I strike a careless pose and whistle a happy tune so no one will ever know – I’m afraid.
The result of this deception is very strange to tell, for when I fool the people I fear, I fool myself as well.”
That’s a good coping mechanism occasionally, and it works well especially if you are in the fifth grade and navigating the rapids of learning about yourself and the world around you. But once we’ve grown up , we will be better off is we face the fear, figure out what is actually threatened, and find out if there is anything we can do about what’s going on.

There’s a chunk of the population in this country that has been blinded by fear although that isn’t how they would size up the situation. I’ve felt bewildered in observing that a large percentage of our fellow citizens believe that the last election was a fraud. I am not an expert! I am not a sociologist, historian, or political analyst, this is just what has made sense to me – we cannot make these others see what we see as real and true because they have arrived at their views largely through emotion instead of reason. They are dealing with great fear, unacknowledged fear, caused by changes in their world. Their jobs have been outsourced, they have lost “place” in one way or another (they are definitely not the “elite”), and they feel unheard, powerless, and threatened. We make a mistake in thinking we can persuade or argue them out of their dedication to non-truth since it is not the reasoning mind that has created their opinions. It is the defensive mind and it involves mental operations that will misperceive just about anything in order to maintain a sense of self and self-safety. This percentage follow a man who seems bold and strong. He speaks their language of emotion and uses familiar strategies for dealing with fear. That tactic is to find some targets for attack and externalize inner turmoil by blaming and fighting the despised “other” who seems to be getting in your way. This toxic mix of fear and anger is wreaking havoc in all our lives.

There are two standard psychological mechanisms involved here. – denial and projection. Denial is the earliest and least complex of the defense mechanisms. It involves simply saying no. “No, that didn’t happen. No, I don’t feel that way. No, that isn’t real or true.” We banish an unwelcome feeling into nonexistence and it’s a mechanism that is now being steadfastly overused. The second defense mechanism – projection – is more intricate and harder to disentangle. Instead of owing a feeling as belonging to us, we operate unconsciously to discharge (project) the emotion onto someone else and arrive at a belief that, “It’s not me who is doing anything here, it’s not about what I feel. It’s because those other guys are doing something wrong. I must put them down. My fear is not making me aggressive, it’s that the other guys have to be defeated. And then everything will be okay again.”
These fighters end up feeling better (made great again) and doing worse- nothing has been understood or really dealt with.

This week historian Jon Meacham published a biography of Lincoln, and when asked why he had written yet another book about Lincoln, his answer was that he didn’t want to just tell the familiar story again about the nation-shaping events that happened around the Civil War, he wanted to explore why they had happened. Meacham says that an important part of the why was that Lincoln believed that he was part of something greater than himself, and that there was a moral imperative he had to follow, an imperative far beyond his personal self-interest. He quoted Lincoln as saying that moral cowardice was something he thought he never had. It isn’t that we are moral cowards these days, it’s more that so much else over-rides having a strong moral code. We too often have little interest in doing the right thing, we choose to do the immediately profitable thing.

I found some cheer in the words of Andrea Magno, the marketing director  for Benjamin Moore Paints, “When we look back, we find that in times of uncertainty, people gravitate towards colors that are warmer and more grounded.”
That’s a hopeful observation.
What we need to do is to move towards kindness grounded in community. We need to move towards human warmth . We need to find again the sense of the common good where there is room for, and care for, all of us. It may take many, many years, but we are headed in the wrong direction, the opposite direction now. We would do well to move beyond it all being about “me” and “mine.”

The image on this week’s NEW YORKER magazine cover is a stunning and clear commentary on what is happening – a sweet-faced Betsy Ross is sewing, but not the stars and stripes. The cloth draped across her lap is not the flag that stands for our constitutional republic, but instead it’s a giant dollar bill. If, three weeks from now, too many of us vote first for our pocketbook interests rather than for the greater good and the over-arching national interest, we will be in for terrible times. Economic struggles must be addressed, yes, but not first. First, we have have to ensure our democracy with its governing belief that tries to take the interests of all of us into account.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is often quoted, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” That’s a great statement but it’s incomplete. Forcing ourselves to just get rid of fear won’t work, we must add in other ways of dealing with it. My goodness, this is hard when we are afraid! But the opposite of aggressive fear is caring kindness. That’s what is taught in the perennial wisdom, the collective wisdom that’s a basic guide for living good lives created through many centuries by many cultures from around the world. We must follow its golden rule and treat others as we ourselves want to be treated. We would do well to face fear and replace it with some form of love. The golden rule could become the moral imperative to guide us, to end the division and destruction that is so present now..

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Jon Meacham’s book is AND THERE WAS LIGHT: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle, Random House, 2022.

The image that leads this post is Fire Heart by Gloria Williams for Pixabay.