I recently had a letter from a dear friend who has been living with crushing fears. She felt that these fears were preventing her from being a good friend or living a good life. After writing back, and wondering if I’d said anything of use, I was on a train, journalling about fear. We all fall prey to it, after all. I got to London and onto the underground and there was a poster with one of the Poems on the Underground: ‘What I Fear’. It was a sad list-poem with fears that ranged from pain to shame to failure and then started again.
The slipperiness of fear
Living in fear can be paralysing. Fear is so amorphous. The volcano might never erupt. The storm might not blow our house down. The medical test might say all is well this time. We might get to that day that’s been preying on our mind so much that we’ve lost weeks of sleep anticipating it, only to find we learn more from it than we thought possible. So often our fears turn out to be groundless or exaggerated.
Sometimes, though, the worst happens, but even when it does, fearful anticipation is more likely to have added stress, than helped us through the awfulness. Some things in life are horrific or tragic. Losing a loved one. Facing our own mortality. The end of an important relationship. Losing the job or home or business we’ve loved and poured heart and soul into. Bad things happen. Life doesn’t come with a promise of security. Change and impermanence are everywhere. But terror never assists the process of working through loss.
And yet, we have a fear reflex for a reason. Fear stops us putting our hand into a burning fire. Fear developed to give us a fight or flight response that can be life-saving. And if it’s unlikely there’s a tiger waiting round the corner to devour us, it’s still useful to have the kind of antenae that keep us alert in unfamiliar situations.
The usefulness of fear
Living in a state of high alert all the time is draining and puts a lot of stress on us emotionally and physically. It’s not that we should never be afraid, but that we seem to be good at letting our imaginations run wild with fear.
Perhaps humanity has always been good at projecting and expanding on fear. Or perhaps it has to do with the times we live in. But fear isn’t always a bad thing. Apart from the fact that it can be a genuine alert to real danger, and a spur to action, it can also teach us a great deal about the ways in which we cling to or move out of our comfort zones.
It takes a great deal of courage to write. It makes us visible and vulnerable and can demand a lot of self-reflection.
It takes huge courage to make transformations in our lives. So often we want change but also resist it. We may feel life or the person we presently are are nothing like how we want, but at least it all feels familiar and that makes it safe. When we’re afraid to make radical changes or take new directions … the problem isn’t the fear, it’s how we respond to it. Fear can paralyse or it can be the fuel for bravery.
And as well as providing the momentum for courage, fear can be a way to empathise and work with others. We live in a world in which many fears are held in common. As writers, we have the skills to name the fears, names that bring clarity and reassurance. And we have skills to tell the stories of how we can respond to fear with hope and transformation.
Calling the names
Writers often witness to and write about terrifying things.
Writers tell the stories of refugees who have lost home and land, risked everything to migrate, often losing loved ones along the way only to find themselves in new places, unwelcome and misunderstood.
Writers tell the stories of historical oppression on the basis of gender or race or class or religion or just for the sheer evil hell of it.
Writers tell the story of our planet, stripped of resources, polluted, undergoing a period of mass extinctions, becoming unliveable in more and more places.
Writers witness to and write about terrifying things, not because we are a bunch of misanthropes who want to share the misery, but because these stories matter to communities, to all life; because these stories are urgent.
Ecological writers and activists don’t want us to wallow and die, they want us to change. Writers of dystopias and utopias don’t want us to take to our beds while we wait for the world to end, they want us to realise that there is always an alternative, there is always the possibility of finding a new way.
We name the wrongs, past and present, to draw attention to the extraordinary resilience of people or places or other species or life itself. We give voice and witness and name in order to nurture hope.
The balance of hope
In my last blog I talked about how writers need to keep returning, over and over, to hope. Václav Havel, the writer who went from being an imprisoned dissident to president, talked about how hope is not about what is or isn’t going to happen, but the conviction that we should do the right thing and try new things, no matter how things might turn out.
Hope is the flip side of fear and, in our writing, and it how we live, we can advocate for hope in place of fear. Hope is the attitude shift that allows us to live with questions, not always or even hardly ever knowing what comes next. Hope is the mindset of going on creating even when the world around is cynical or closed. After all, we largely don’t know the impact our writing has on others, or how any one of the those others might take what we have written and make some amazing change because of it; or just keep living with hope herself.
Hope is knowing that whatever our fears, there is a level of life, often found in the everyday joy of relationships and simple pleasures, that brings solace. When we focus on the things we can do for the good, however small those things might seem, we tip the balance towards hope. Wherever we nurture community and connection. Whenever we collaborate, love, show compassion, generosity of empathy, there is courage and there is hope.
What’s new story are you becoming?
Thank you for reading — new stories and transformation have never been so urgent and writing is a big part of that. I’d love you to join the conversation by signing up to my email list and you’ll also find free courses here. While you’re there, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life, which will connect you to more transformative ideas to become a different story.