The distance doesn’t matter;
it is only the first step that counts
La distance n’y fait rien; il n’y a que le premier pas qui coûte.
Marquise du Deffand, 1697 – 1780, French hostess and patron of the arts. She was commenting on the popular legend of Saint Denis who was said to have walked for 6 miles carrying his head after being beheaded.
I asked the poet Tony Hoagland what he thought about fear. He said fear was the ghost of an experience: we fear the recurrence of a pain we once felt, and in this way fear is like a hangover. The memory of our pain is a pain unto itself, and thus feeds our fear like a foyer with mirrors on both sides.
And then he quoted Auden: “And ghosts must do again/What gives them pain.”
Mary Ruefle, On Fear
Once there was a young warrior. Her teacher told her that she had to do battle with fear. She didn’t want to do that. It seemed too aggressive; it was scary; it seemed unfriendly. But the teacher said she had to do it and gave her the instructions for the battle. The day arrived. The student warrior stood on one side, and fear stood on the other. The warrior was feeling very small, and fear was looking big and wrathful. They both had their weapons. The young warrior roused herself and went toward fear, prostrated three times, and asked, “May I have permission to go into battle with you?” Fear said, “Thank you for showing me so much respect that you ask permission.” Then the young warrior said, “How can I defeat you?” Fear replied, “My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.” In that way, the student warrior learned how to defeat fear.
Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
Sometimes we build a reality out of our greatest fears or anticipate the worst of others, when the reality is far from what we have constructed:
Unaware that our stories are stories, we usually experience them as the world. Like fish that do not see the water they swim in, we normally do not notice the medium we dwell within. We take for granted that the world we experience is just the way things are. But our concepts and ideas about the world, like the stories they are part of, strongly affect our perception of reality. In … practice, one learns, early on and then continually, the truth of my favorite bumper sticker: “Don’t believe everything you think.”
David Loy, The World Is Made of Stories
Today, November 2nd, is traditionally the day that we remember those close to us who have died and gone before us
All men should strive to learn before they die,
what they are running from,
and to, and why.
Today is the feastday of St Francis of Assisi (1182 – 1226), a town I visited just a month ago, so a story from his life about working with difficult emotions.
We are told that there was a wolf terrorizing the town of Gubbio, attacking and killing several people. The townsfolk locked their doors, afraid to leave their homes. Francis heard about this and went to Gubbio . When he came upon the wolf, it lunged at him, about to bite. Francis stood calmly and greeted the wolf, calling him “Brother Wolf” and told it not to harm him. The wolf stopped and lay down at his feet. Then Francis and the wolf made a deal: the town would provide food for the wolf for the rest of its life, in exchange for the wolf’s ceasing to attack. We are told the wolf placed its right paw into Francis’ hand, and lived in peace with the people of Gubbio for the rest of its life.
These legends speak to the different parts of our lives. We all have many fears that push us to close our doors and withdraw. And we have emotions that arise within us and scare us, like anger, jealousy and the stuff that relationships bring up in our lives. Our normal first response is to be disturbed or frightened by these strong emotions and we move to push them away. However, in themselves, these are not the problem, but it is our mind’s relationship to them that is. So what we learn from Francis is to approach the things that frighten us – the frightening wolves within us – by looking at them directly, as if they are part of the family – “brother wolf”, “brother anger” “brother fear” – and welcome them to the table. This is the practice: to first experience the anxiety as an embodied feeling, with no shoulds or shouldn’ts about it. Our fears do not need to become a moment for showing ourselves further violence.
We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. .
We always have this choice
Pema Chödrön, The Places that Scare You