Fear is often defined as an unpleasant emotion caused by the perception of a real or imagined danger. The natural effects of fear can range from mild emotional distress to debilitating physical trauma. Our ability to address new and existing fear is a skillset that requires awareness and support. Without this ability, fear can thrive, wreaking havoc on your mind and body, while imprisoning your soul and preventing you from experiencing life in its true perspective.
Throughout the current Coronavirus pandemic, individuals have been required to respond to both physical and psychological threats, which were often veiled within conflicting messages about personal safety and social responsibility. Many of the response options have revolved around our personal judgments and ability to overcome our fears. Whether quarantines, social distancing, avoiding family or friends, education choices, government support, and trust in the medical industry, this year we have all experienced fear and it’s paralyzing effects.
While walking on a trail recently in Old Ellicott City, a middle-aged woman yelled at me when she noticed that my mask was resting just below my nose. It did not matter to her that I was more than the obligatory 6ft. away and following posted guidelines in the park, in that moment I was a physical representation of death, she feared me, I was a sabretooth tiger in her mind. Juxtapose that with another hike in the Patapsco Valley park where I was fully masked. A mountain biker laughed at me, saying, “Hope the trees don’t give you the virus, haha!” for wearing a mask in the woods. I laughed too, it was funny, and wished him well, but I was motivated by my own fear of being yelled at by another “Karen.” We never please everyone, don’t try.
Recognition of fear can be healthy, and even lifesaving, when approached with a balanced mindset. To recognize fear, one must acknowledge its existence to cultivate awareness of how we react so we can better respond to this unpleasant emotion. Fear produces emotional, cognitive, and physiological reactions. Fear and excitement feel the same in the body. We can learn to identify and use these signals (physical sensations) to shift towards a more functional and creative mindset.
Not too long ago a client in my clinical practice was faced with the prospect of his employment contract expiring. When I asked him what he would do if that scenario happened, he became angry at me as to why I (as a therapist) would “put that idea in my [his] head.” He was denying that it was a possible outcome and wanted to avoid the fear, pain, and unpleasantness. The contract was not renewed and the fear, worry, and emotional pain came anyway. He did what many do, his belief was that if he did not think of the negative outcome it would not come true. Live and learn, right? I have done it, have you? No judgment is a skill to cultivate.
Contrast that with a more resilient client who when confronted with a similar prospect faced his situation with a more calm, wise, and creative mind. He reached out to his network immediately and identified several potential landing spots for his services. He was able to embrace the possible change and work with uncertainty. Remember that both change & pain are inevitable, but suffering is optional. Had the first client prepared for the possibility of change earlier, then losing the job would have been less painful, for he would have prepared for that potentiality. His fear was valid. The second client did not lose his job and is continuing to thrive but is now more confident in the knowledge that options exist should things change, as they probably will.
The Bangladesh Ferry Incident
When I was in Peace Corps Bangladesh, I lived in a village called Gopalganj, several hours south of Dhaka. To travel anywhere I had to cross the Padma (Ganges in India) river by ferry. Crossing a river by ferry is common and can be rife with danger. Try googling bagladesh ferry boats.
The process was this; take a passenger bus to the river, disembark, get on a small passenger ferry, and then cross the river while a second bus on the other side would continue the journey. On this occasion while crossing, a sudden, fast-moving, and fierce thunderstorm came upon us, causing the shallow draft boat to rock from side to side to the point I had to hold on to keep from falling off. If you can visualize the Viking ship from an amusement park going side to side versus front to back, not pleasant at all. At points during the pendulum motion, I was staring face to face with the fast-moving current. I quickly realized this was where my life would end, and if you have ever felt this or can relate… time stood still.
In that moment of stillness, a lifetime passed my conscious awareness. Some might say my life flashed before my eyes. I thought about my loving parents and family, and how terribly sad they would be, and how they would wonder what they could have done to prevent this tragedy. I didn’t see anyway out of this so I wanted to communicate to them that I loved them and to let them know I would be okay, I KNEW that somehow. A knowing beyond knowing.
I then remember smiling and being grateful for the life I had. I could not complain. I had wanted adventure traveling the world and I had found it. I also remember being in awe that the story of this life was coming to an end, we always wonder but never really know how or when our point of departure may occur, but this was the moment, and I found a tremendous peace in that.
I tried unsuccessfully to smoke a cigarette in the rain to calm my nerves a little and prepared to jump. One thing we were taught is that if the ferry vessel goes down it will suck you down if you don’t get far enough away. There were several other men standing around the back of the ferry with me smoking and nervously chewing betel nut. Inside the cabin of the small ferry were mostly women and children crying hysterically and wailing out loud and praying to “Allah” to save them from certain death. The atmosphere was charged with energy of the collective nightmare taking place. The ferry was overloaded of course with at least 150 people, maybe more, all believing that death was shortly upon us.
I curiously investigated the river as the boat rocked back and forth and was waiting for the precise moment to jump. I knew that jumping into the water meant death but there was at least a chance. My muscles began to tense. I was a decent swimmer, but the current was incredibly intense, especially with the winds of the storm. Michael Phelps would not have had a chance, but what the hell, I had nothing to lose. As I worked up the courage in my mind to make the leap a moment happened that changed my life forever.
I heard the words “DON’T JUMP!” vividly vibrate through my entire body.
It shook my soul and I stood there frozen. In that moment I heard God, the Creator, Jesus, Allah, Krishna, my guardian angel- call it whatever you want. I knew crystal clear, without a shadow of any doubt…that God or some angelic spirit had just spoke to me directly. I knew in that moment that the boat would make it to shore, which made absolutely no sense. This rickety overcrowded ferry in an already dangerous river in a storm with a shallow draft making a successful crossing defied my logical brain. My soul, or intuition knew we would live.
One of the old ferry men who had a weathered face with a white beard looked into my eyes just then and said “okay,” meaning we would make it. It made no sense to me at all, but his eyes looked calm amidst the storm, wailing, and crying of the women and children, and I was surely not alone in my catastrophic thinking. There was a lot of praying and negotiating going on with God in those moments. My brain knew instinctually that we should be dead at any moment, I hoped it would be quick… and yet my heart and soul knew that we would survive. My death was not happening today. I remembered the story of St. Paul and mused “I guess that is how that works.”
When the boat got closer to the shoreline I did not wait to disembark, I just jumped off the boat onto the muddy riverbank. I tried to climb up in the intense rain but kept sliding back down toward the water. I was covered in mud from head to toe, I looked ridiculous. Eventually I was able to claw my way up to the top. It was raining so intensely that all the mud just washed away as quickly as it appeared.
I was the only bideshi (foreigner) in the area, all alone, no one to share the story with. The bus conductor came up to me and apologized for leading such a hazardous journey on the Palash Bus Company of Gopalganj. I assured him that I had no complaints about him or the company. He was on the ferry with too, and I know he felt the same fear I did. I was just relieved to have dodged a bullet Matrix style on that trip. For the record I love the Palash Bus Company, and Gopalganj.
In one of the scariest moments of my life God revealed himself. Some people ask for signs. I did not on this occasion, but I did express gratitude to God for the life I had. I admit I was fortunate to have the experience, which is why I share it now. It is just impossible to doubt something like that when it happens to you. I do remember questioning myself- “Did that just really happen?” … “How in the hell did we just survive that?.” I spent a lot of time in my journal and in thought contemplating that event and my conclusion is that I had a purpose, it was not my time, and even though I did not know everything, I had lessons to learn.
We ALL have a purpose and lessons to learn. You do not need to believe in God, go to a specific church, or have the right faith. God made all of us in his image, we all come from the same source.
Years later having survived various challenges in life and now a pandemic I can honestly say that I am not afraid of death. My body will return to dust, but my soul and conscious awareness will continue to exist. It just is.
I share this story to hopefully inspire others in some small way. If you are still reading there was a reason, for there are no coincidences in life. Often in psychology we (professionals) fear talking about death and spirituality as some fringe aspect of life and the unknown but as a clinical therapist and more importantly a student of life, I have learned that many people have stories like mine but are afraid to share them even with loved ones for fear of being mocked and ridiculed.
I have heard far too many stories. However, science is increasingly studying the phenomenon of Near-Death Experiences, or NDE’s, and the research is beyond compelling. When we speak of mindfulness and conscious awareness, where does it begin and end? Perhaps the future and past are all wrapped up in this present moment.
Some people believe that all anxiety can be whittled down to a fear of death. If you are not afraid of death then you can begin to understand there is nothing to worry about. The happiest country in the world meditates on death five times per day in the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. Think about that. When you are not afraid of death, you focus your time on living in the present, learning new things, spending time with family and friends. Mindfulness can help minimize distractions and prioritize paying attention in the present moment to meet fear and difficulty with kindness, love, and compassion.
Remember that the real meditation is the moment that you are living in right now, it is life. Do not be afraid to live, take risks, and fail. As my mentor Dr. Wendy Hill says, “from the ashes of your despair arises the Phoenix of your truth and joy.”