As Martin Luther King, Jr. is celebrated today, I found myself revisiting the history of civil rights movements. Things have changed and things haven’t changed.
One thing I noticed in particular as I looked at these movements (whether big or small) is that the struggle between fear and courage is always at the forefront. As I made my way to present day, I reflected on how badly some people want a wall between the United States and Mexico. While I won’t pretend to know the first thing about border security, I do know that if we’re putting up walls, figuratively or for real, it’s because we’re afraid.
The thing is, our fear, while always valid (Because we are experiencing it. You can’t deny that.), is NOT always justified. Fear is justified when your life, health, or well-being is in actual danger. Simply thinking that you’re in danger doesn’t mean that you actually are. Luckily we live in the absolute safest time in history so much of our fear (I’m just as guilty.) isn’t based on any real life threat. Yet, many decisions are made from a place of unjustified fear and that doesn’t lead to the best outcomes. Unjustified fear often leads to oppression and violence.
I could get into where the fear comes from. Evolution. Not evolving enough. A means of control. I could write a whole book. Many already have (https://nerdycreator.com/bookclub/books-on-how-to-overcome-fear/). But I’d rather focus on what we can do with our fear to mindfully transform it into courage, rather than let it control us and create a world of pain.
We often think we need major movements in order to enact positive change. Of course, it’s more effective to have millions of people standing strong together for human rights, but ultimately courage comes from within. There are plenty of people highly involved in human rights movements who are actually not helping the cause because they’re still operating from a place of fear rather than courage. Yelling and screaming hate-filled messages back at those who “started it” doesn’t end it. It just continues to fuel the fire.
That’s why MLK, Jr. and Ghandi (amongst others)’s messages of nonviolent resistance ring so true for me. No one’s listening to anyone who’s full of anger and screaming out of control (or worse). That’s not to say we shouldn’t feel angry about injustice, but we need to understand and transform that anger in order to be effective. Anger often comes from a place of fear so if we don’t deal with that fear first, it will get in our way.
The best way to deal with it is to be mindful. We have to be in the present moment, experiencing it as it is without trying to change it, without judging it, before we can take effective action. Often what we think are our instincts are actually our pre-programmed automatic responses. So we aren’t making conscious decisions based on the actual circumstance, which as stated above, doesn’t often turn out well.
So Feel It
I know, I know, the go-to of every therapist. Feel your emotions. But it hard core works so just freaking do it. Feel the physical sensations of fear in your body. Does your chest tighten? Does your heart race? Can you think clearly? If it’s already been transformed into anger, feel what anger feels like in your body. Is your body tense? Does it feel hot? If anger is the larger emotion, but covering for fear, once you’ve felt it, it will then give way to the fear. These sensations aren’t a good time, but they can’t kill you. And they will become less intense if you actually experience them.
Notice Your Thoughts
What are you telling yourself? Is it based in reality? Do you have anything to support any truth to them? Don’t judge them, but really take a look at them and notice that they don’t stick around forever. They’re constanting changing and evolving, disappearing and reappearing. Our thoughts are simply thoughts. Sometimes we give them far more weight than we should.
Look for the Message
Yet, you do want to pay attention to some of your thoughts because emotions communicate things to us. So listen and be completely honest with yourself. What are you actually afraid of? How is your fear getting in your way? Are you in any way like those you feel such fear or animosity toward? Ask the hard questions and listen for the answers. You might not like them, but if you keep ignoring them, you’ll continue to feel angry and afraid.
Use the Information
Once the sensations have decreased and you know what you’re afraid of, you can make a more mindful decision to face that fear in a way that seems right to you. It allows us to see more options and to think about solutions more creatively, coming up with something that matches our morals and values. Sometimes that’s letting go. Sometimes that’s remaining calm in the face of another’s rage. Sometimes that’s protesting, writing petitions, or boycotting. Sometimes it’s finding the exact right words to help the other side see your point of view.
That is fear transformed.
It doesn’t mean you’ll never feel afraid again, but you will be better equipped to manage it the next time you do feel it. And dealing with your own fear internally doesn’t change other people or entire societies overnight, but it does create smaller changes that last and can be built upon. As with anything, we always have to start with ourselves first.
I went through this transformation as I wrote today . I really struggled with finding the right words to express exactly what I wanted to here. I never ended up finding them, so I felt afraid of putting something that might be crap out there for anyone and everyone to read. But I also know I need to get this published by my deadline.
So I felt the sensations, which was mostly a tightening in my chest. I noticed the thoughts around not wanting to be judged for being a crappy writer. Ultimately, I pushed through, kept writing, and decided to put it out there even if I’m not 100% stoked on it. Because I have something to say. It might not be the most eloquent or clever thing I’ve ever written, but I also can’t let fear hold me back from saying it. I can always rewrite it at a later date when I come up with better words. Courage feels better than letting fear get in the way of my life.
I deal with fear on some level every single day. Again, not a good time, but I’m getting better at it because what else am I supposed to do? So if I can do it, you can do it. And when you do it, I promise you’ll have a more fulfilling life and a much more of a positive impact on the people around you and the causes you’re passionate about.