I've been seeing a lot of it in friends and colleagues lately, perhaps a natural response to unsettled economic times and political upheaval. Good friends are either struggling to find work, or are queasy about their current jobs. Northwest airlines, 3M—I have friends wondering about their futures with these local corporations after 20, 30 years of service.
I know fear pretty intimately m self. Earlier in my life I had a couple of periods where I was plagued by panic attacks that pretty much disabled me for months at a time, and even today, when I have the courage to look beneath whatever petty irritation or annoyance I might be feeling at the moment, there is very often a ground floor of quiet fear that serves as the foundation for other unpleasant emotions.
These days, I'm a bit more equanimous as regards my own fear. I see remnants of the old stuff, though, in my feelings when I see other people's fear. I don't like it in others, at least partly because I'm still a bit afraid of my own fear.
With a particular employee of mine, I find myself feeling some annoyance during routine meetings, and I'm aware that what I'm reacting against is my sense of his inner nervousness. At all points, he insists on knowing details of issues that really don't need to be worried about. Energetically, I feel his center of gravity humming up about the level of his Adam's apple, and I don't react well to his compulsive fearfulness and perfectionism. It puts me off, and my response is vague irritation. Same is true of family and friends: I sometimes respond to their fears with a little bit of quiet annoyance. Clearly, a bit of old baggage in me.
This morning on the bus, I paid attention to how people survey the seating opportunities when they climb aboard. Except in instances where they know one another well, people will always look for the one seat that allows a bit of personal space to remain. Nobody sits directly next to someone, unless there is no other option. Quiet fear at work.
When a stranger sits next to a person, that passenger always struggles briefly with just a little discomfort and mild fear, visible in nervous movement—they shift their legs, shrink away from the possibility of brushing shoulders.
Some people have enough fear that they absolutely cannot meet the eyes of any bus passenger.
What is it that we're all afraid of, I wonder?
This morning, observing fear in others, I found myself remembering the old days when panic lived along side me all the time. A panic attack, for me, was experienced mostly as a mind that raced frantically, utterly unable to rest on the present. Thinking back, I now see that a panic attack was for me an attempt to desperately escape feelings that were even more unacceptable to me. Panic was for me an escape from feelings of fear and anger and betrayal and hurt that I'd been running from my entire life. A panic attack is fear of fear itself.
As a young man, I turned the corner toward a real life at the moment when it became just plain impossible to run any longer. When there was no longer any option other than to face fear and be overwhelmed by it, it began to dissolve.
Sometimes I forget the old lesson and find myself inadvertently running away again. This can feel good for a little while, but then pretty soon I find that there is more and more to run away from, and I need to run faster and faster to maintain the illusion of being separate from the difficult stuff. Then irritation arises, I feel my mind begin to spin a bit faster than is comfortable, I might find myself troubled by cruel thoughts.
There is an antidote for me. It's a strange coping mechanism, I'll grant you, but it was born long ago out of my failure to escape fear. The answer is always to look for the fear and experience it. Once known, it stops looking for recognition.
Somebody smarter and healthier than me once suggested a better approach, though I've never exactly made this work for me. He told me that once you learn to ignore everything that is superficial and temporary and not real, you begin to recognize that there is nothing that ever threatens our essence. Fear then disappears entirely.
Yet another goal for a future life.