Fear is Holding Us Back
If you haven’t seen the movie, Defending Your Life, you should. It is an incredibly intelligent Albert Brooks comedy from 1991, starring Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep.
I don’t know many people who remember the movie, and that’s unfortunate. For me, this was a bellwether story. It voiced something that I had felt for a long time, but for which I had no words.
It’s about a man who dies (needlessly) in a car accident and finds himself in Judgement City, a sort of weigh station for souls.
At Judgement City, he must defend is life, in terms of how much fear he was able to overcome. If he was judged that he overcame his fear, he could “progress forward.”
If not, he had to be “sent back (reincarnated)” to try again in a next life.
Defending Your Life did not deliver a brand new message, but it was presented in a way that I could understand in a meaningful way.
Art is like that. Each piece of art is its own perspective on a premise. It may speak to millions or one.
The premise of Defending Your Life, as I understand it, is that fear is holding us back from our evolution.
I’m am not saying we don’t need fear. We can’t do without fear. Fear is part of what made us.
But fear has its place. These days, for us in the Western world, it need not take a huge place.
Have you ever driven a stick shift?
You have to play the clutch and the gas against one another as you get the car from 0-15 mph (or 0-24 kph).
You need first gear for that. It’s important, but only for a few moments.
Imagine that you have a car.
The car is a stick shift — a manual. It has seven gears.
Now imagine that the car you are driving is life itself.
Fear is first gear in the Car of Life.
First Gear: Fear
Fear is as old as life itself.
Without fear, creatures do not know when to remove themselves from dangerous situations. Those who don’t fear, don’t survive. Fear is primal.
I’m eating a root. There’s a big animal with sharp teeth moving toward me in the grass. I run. Or I kill the animal before it kills me.
That’s the “fight-or-flight” response. It is an autonomic (automatic) nervous system response called the sympathetic response.
Fear gets you away from the sharp-toothed animal.
Then I rest and eat my root.
That’s the “rest and digest” response. That is an autonomic nervous system response, too. It’s called the parasympathetic (“around-the-sympathetic”) response.
These are primal, necessary nervous system functions, the health of which cannot be ignored. We feel them every single day.
But you can’t run a car in first gear. You’ll burn out the engine.
You have to shift to second, third, fourth, etc…
Each gear builds on the gains of the others.
Second Gear: Love
Nature decided that life should have a nurturing aspect. The very next thing that Life gave us was the ability to love and care for others.
I just ran/killed that sharp-toothed animal and now I’m eating my root.
I see my neighbor. My neighbor wasn’t so lucky. His leg is bitten and bleeding, and he’s sick.
I don’t know what to do, but my root makes me feel better.
I share my root.
Without love, life is little more than fight/flight, rest/digest, pee/poop, birth/death, with a little sex for relief. Hopefully.
Without love, nothing beyond the will to survive is possible.
Third Gear: Forethought
This is where the animals start to separate themselves out from other animals. The act of planning is a huge evolutionary step.
I have to gather and hunt to feed myself and my family. What if I cooperate with my neighbors? We are all good at this and that. We can take on different tasks to get the job done better and faster, and we’ll have each other’s backs.
How do I get that across to them? We need some way we can share ideas in common so we know how to collaborate.
It took my tribe and I four days to hunt this animal, and another four to carry it back to the family. How do we keep it fresh until then?
Soon it will be winter and it will be difficult to find food. How do we store our food so we can make it until spring?
Without forethought, there is no science, no logic, no language, no architecture, no innovation, no adaption. No progress.
The Fourth Gear: Choice
Without choice, we have no real autonomy and no way to communicate alternative ideas peacefully.
My aunt wants me to gather berries. But I like to hunt. Also, we have many people who like to pick berries. I think we need more hunters. I will hunt.
I can either hurt my aunt’s feelings or I can persuade her that this is a good idea. I would rather we are both happy, because I love my aunt. I will persuade her.
If I can’t persuade her, I can either cut myself off from her or remind her that, although I will not take her advice, I love and respect her. I don’t want to be apart from my aunt. I choose to tell her I love and respect her.
Without choice, there is no real respect for one another beyond fear. There is no peace.
What is the fifth gear of life?
The Fifth Gear: Wonder
Wonder is the emotional result of the realization that there are forces at work that are greater than you and your tribe.
When the moon is full, the tide is very high. When the moon is gone, the tide is low. The moon makes the water rise. The moon must be very powerful. I wonder how the moon does that? I wonder if the moon knows I am here?
Wonder can be painful. Sometimes pain can cause fear. Pain is sometimes necessary for growth to occur.
My father was laughing with us last night. This morning his body was here, but it was cold and he never woke up. My father is gone. My father’s body is beginning to turn to earth. The Earth must want my father’s body. But without my father, I don’t know who I am, or what my life means. Where did my father go? What will happen to me? What will happen to my family?
But because we have choice, we can choose how we process pain. Wonder lets us do this.
When we kill an animal, its body is inside me, and in the earth, like my father’s body. Is the animal a part of me? Did it have a soul, like my father? Is it part of the earth, like my father? Are we all?
Without wonder, there is no appreciation of mystery. There is no philosophy. There is no wisdom. There is no Homo sapien.
The Sixth Gear of Life: Art
Art is our intuitive expression of wonder. Art isn’t just the appreciation of something bigger than ourselves: it is our interpretation of that which is bigger than ourselves.
The moon is beautiful. I want to draw the moon and the water.
My father was funny. I want my daughter to know this. I will act out stories about my father to make her laugh.
I like the way I feel when I raise my voice high and low. It makes me feel warm and wonderful. I will sing.
You may have noticed that, as the car accelerates, the car slips into the higher gears more smoothly and easily. It seems as if they are seamless.
The car slips so easily past the sixth into the seventh gear, it’s difficult to know where it began.
Seventh Gear of Life: Oneness
Oneness is not just our interpretation of that which is bigger than ourselves; it is our awareness that we and that which is bigger than ourselves are one.
When I sit very still, I feel the moon glow and the cool waters flow inside me. They are part of me.
When I act the part of my father, I feel my father inside of me. My father is still with me.
If I am still and think of the animal inside me, I feel it becoming part of me. If I let myself, I feel the animal in the earth. I feel my father inside me and in the earth. I feel we are all part of one another.
Why am I telling you all this?
Because sometime today, something is going to beg you to fear.
- You are going to hear about xxxx who was a victim of xxxx, and the results are brutal.
- You are going to find out that someone took away someone else’s power/rights/life.
- You are going to face a challenge.
- You are going to be judged, fairly or unfairly, on your talents, your looks, your skills, your wit.
- You are going to be subject to someone else’s fear. It might look and feel like violence (in this case, it probably is).
- Someone will believe in you, will trust you, will have faith that you will do the right thing.
When any or all of this happens, I want you to remember:
Fear causes pain. Pain can be necessary for growth. Pain can send you backward, or you can process it differently and move forward.
You have a choice. Wonder.