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The Wisdom in Listening to Fear

Every once in a while there is something that captures my attention in all its totality. It could be the soft skin of my child’s cheeks, or a painting in my husband’s vast collection of art books, or the spark when someone I work with recognizes their own ability for self healing and love. These are but fleeting moments. Recalling them brings me a measure of joy.

As this new year began with its fits and starts — the hope of renewal and the reality of the long tail of the Covid virus — two moments captivated me. Perhaps because of their proximity in time. The first was reading a NYT guest essay by the youngest poet laureate to date, Amanda Gorman, on the anniversary of last year’s presidential inauguration, entitled Why I Almost Didn’t Read My Poem at the Inauguration

She describes the fears that plagued for weeks leading up to the very day and how she was just shy of backing out. 

My neighborhood was eerily quiet in that early morning dark, though I strained my ears for noise to distract me from the choice that lay ahead. It felt like my little world stood still. And then it struck me: Maybe being brave enough doesn’t mean lessening my fear, but listening to it.”

Of course, Amanda Gorman did go to the inauguration. Just weeks after the insurrection that stained our democracy, she stood like a queen in her bright yellow coat in the freezing cold. She recited her poem, The Hill We Climb (PBS video). She was a beacon of truth and earnestness as she channeled her ancestors. In many ways, Amanda Gorman stole the show and offered us a searing sermon so wise beyond her 22 years. 

Our nation is still haunted by disease, inequality and environmental crises. But though our fears may be the same, we are not. If nothing else, this must be known: Even as we’ve grieved, we’ve grown; even fatigued, we’ve found that this hill we climb is one we must mount together. We are battered but bolder, worn but wiser.

And speaking to all of our human suffering, she added a salve:

I’m not telling you to not be tired or afraid. If anything, the very fact that we’re weary means we are, by definition, changed; we are brave enough to listen to, and learn from, our fear. This time will be different because this time we’ll be different. We already are.

Here we are. The world is still in pain, many are trapped by their fears, and suffering has not ceased. But neither has love, courage, or faith. She concludes her essay,

And yes, I still am terrified every day. Yet fear can be love trying its best in the dark. So do not fear your fear. Own it. Free it. This isn’t a liberation that I or anyone can give you — it’s a power you must look for, learn, love, lead and locate for yourself. Why? The truth is, hope isn’t a promise we give. It’s a promise we live. Tell it like this, and we, like our words, will not rest.

The second riveting occurred just two days later at news of the passing of Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Vietnamese Zen monk and peace activist. He was 95. 

Thich Naht Hahn brought mindfulness to the West in the 1960s and introduced simple practices, such as mindful walking, smile meditation, compassion, non violence, and cultivating a “beginner’s mind.” In a slim volume, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, he wrote:

We have a great, habitual fear inside ourselves. We’re afraid of many things — of our own death, of losing our loved ones, of change, of being alone. The practice of mindfulness helps us to touch nonfear. It’s only here and now that we can experience total relief, total happiness… In the practice of Buddhism, we see that all mental formations — including compassion, love, fear, sorrow, and despair — are organic in nature. We don’t need to be afraid of any of them, because transformation is always possible.

And perhaps one of the tenderest teachings,

You can sit down with that fearful child inside and be gentle with him or her. You might say something like this: “Dear little child, I am your adult self. I would like to tell you that we are no longer a baby, helpless and vulnerable. We have strong hands and strong feet; we can very well defend ourselves. So there is no reason why we have to continue to be fearful anymore.

If you are not familiar with this wise man, watch the memorial ceremonies in the 7 days after his passing (or Oprah’s interview). His simple teachings have seeped into our cultural consciousness. Perhaps you have seen t-shirts, No Mud, No Lotus, and wondered what it meant. It’s a reminder that joy and suffering coexist. It is the paradox of being alive.

A young woman. An old teacher. Over seventy years apart and yet they both illuminate the power of seeing clearly. 

Being human is hard. Every experience is temporary. Change is constant. 

Stay present. Keep your heart open.


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