I’ve had a bit of a revelation tonight that I would like to share with you. It’s about how to conquer fear. Sounds dramatic, and actually it kind of is. But like most personal revelations, it’s hard to predict whether you, the reader, can relate to it. Let’s find out.
I used to think I had no fear, or rather that I’d made a conscious choice to let go of fear. What I was thinking of was actually the kind of vague anxiety that many people feel from time to time, like anxiety about whether you’ve studied enough for the test or how you’ll do in performance reviews at work. I don’t feel that way, and haven’t for years. It’s kind of easy: in stead of worrying, you imagine what will happen if the worst should come to pass. What if you don’t do well on the exam? You’ll have to take it again. So? No problem. What if you don’t do well in the review and loose your job? There’ll be other jobs. Or there won’t be. Either way, life goes on. So why worry? Here’s a mantra for you. “What will be, will be. What is, is what must be. What has been, could not have been otherwise.”
I was wrong about fear though. Anxiety and fear have many of the same properties, but they differ greatly in intensity. For me, fear always had a face. That of Pennywise the Clown from the movie of Stephen King’s “It”.
Why Pennywise? I mentioned it once to my sister, and she though he was actually a hilarious character. But this is no small matter to me. In my life I’ve woken up screaming twice, and one of those times was after a nightmare about a weird combination of Pennywise and Jeff Wayne’s War of the World. I’ve thought about it a lot, and in the end, I came up with this: the threat of violence. That is what Pennywise represents to me. Not even violence in itself. Violence may be a horrible thing, but while it is actually happening, you’re not really afraid because you stop thinking sequentially. At least that has been my experience. It is the threat, the suspense. The feeling that unthinking violence is about to start any moment now, and when it does you’ll be helpless.
Anyway, I think we all know the feeling of fear that comes upon us in the dark at night, when we’re all alone. In fact, it has even become an internet meme. Recently, whenever I went to the bathroom in the dark, I had to fight a fear that I’d turn on the light and look in the mirror, only to find Pennywise staring back at me. At first I tried fighting the feeling with annoyance: annoyance at the clown for turning up every time, but even more at myself for allowing the fear to return time and again. But that didn’t work. In the end, the feeling never went away.
Tonight, I decided that I wasn’t going to put up with it anymore. So I sat down in the dark, relaxing, meditating, and started to explore this feeling of fear. That’s a hard thing to do. Like revulsion, fear is something that we instinctively turn away from. But if you immerse yourself in it, you’re focusing on the symptoms rather than the cause. In the end, I managed to look at my fear from a distance, far enough to not become distracted by it, close enough to see through it. Then it appeared to me that what I had really been afraid of all along was not the clown, or the violence: it was the suspense. Then I asked myself: why should I be afraid of the waiting for violence, but not of the violence itself? It didn’t make sense. I was trying to convince myself in this way not to be afraid anymore. It helped, but it wasn’t quite enough.
Then the revelation came. Why does the clown incite fear? What is his goal? To cause fear in people? To always threaten with violence, but never actually use it? What would be the point? Pennywise has a goal of his own, just as much as any other living thing. In that sense he is no different from me. In fact, if the clown really was stalking me all this time, but unable to physically touch me, he’d be frustrated as hell!
And then I saw it. Not with my eyes, which were closed at the time, but with “the mind’s eye”. The clown was standing right behind me, with one hand on my shoulder, threatening me. But it wasn’t there by its choice: it was there by mine. The clown hadn’t been stalking me, I had been dragging it along. Every time I turned on the light, half expecting to see his face, I’d called him to me, keeping him close by. It was standing behind me, a prisoner of my own fears and expectations.
What I did next came naturally. I brought him from my back to right in front of me. I acknowledged that he was there, not to threaten me, but because I had dragged him out there. Then I spoke to him. “Now I know you’re there, and why you’re there. You can go now. I release you.” And away he went. The funny thing is, once he was gone, I couldn’t even picture his face anymore.
Hollywood always portrays facing your fear as an ordeal, something you have to fight your way through. This was nothing like that. I was completely calm, I felt good. But there is one popular expression that is correct. “A weight was lifted from my heart.” That’s exactly how it felt after he left, and I was no longer dragging him behind me. I physically felt lighter, and was moving more freely, as if I’d taken some weights off of my limbs or part of my body had turned into air.
Now it’s been a few hours. I do catch myself thinking about him again when I come close to the bathroom mirror. But it’s an empty thought, more of a bad habit that I now have to get rid of. The content of the feeling, the fear, is gone. What will happen next? I’m eager to find out.