What is it that causes us to resist change? What is it that cautions us against pursuing our dreams? What is it that stops us from living to the fullest? The answer to these questions is almost inevitably, fear.
Fear has evolutionary roots and is certainly helpful when dealing with certain physical dangers, an encounter with a deadly snake for example. But for a technological advanced, highly intelligent species with no natural predators, fear seems to still dictate more than its fair share of human behaviour.
What are we so afraid of then? Is it death?
Fear of Death
Death is not a popular dinner party topic in our culture today, unless you happen to be at an annual gathering of pathologists. It is viewed as something to be feared and put-off rather than a natural cadence in the ebb and flow of life.
Even amidst more mainstream psychotherapy and wellbeing practitioners, death is treated like an unwelcome guest that is ignored and shunned. This is most unfortunate and represents a denial of something that is fundamental to our very existence. There can be no life without death, and no death without life. It just is.
Society has not always had such an aversion to death. I visited the Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum a couple of years ago and was struck by how that ancient civilisation embraced death as part of the very fabric of life. Their dinner tables were adorned with skeleton etchings accompanied by the words “carpe diem” (seize the day, latin).
Death was seen not as something to be feared, but rather as something that gave meaning to life.
Despite our aversion to death as a 21st century society, it is not what we are fundamentally afraid of. I say this because sometimes people choose death over other things.
Fear of Failure
What is this deep fear that we as a species seem to have then? I believe what we are dealing with is the fear of failure. And of course, this can come in many guises; fear that we are not smart enough, successful enough, rich enough, charitable enough, talented enough, popular enough…the list goes on.
Fear of failure often arises when we start measuring ourselves by external standards defined by other people, which we then strive to meet. Fear is a certain state, one that is characterised by mental and physical tension and anxiety about the future. Indeed, regularly being in such a state is unsurprisingly harmful to our wellbeing.
We will all have certain areas in our lives where fear of failure manifests more strongly. And we have to remember that this is something that is deeply human. Indeed, recognising this tendency within us is the starting point.
We do not however have to be slaves to such fear. As a highly sophisticated species, perhaps we can choose differently. If fear is a state, and one that we involuntarily ‘choose’, it is useful to consider what the opposite of fear might be, so that we might choose differently.
The Opposite of Fear
The opposite of fear is a state of awe and wonder, where we are fully immersed in the present moment, rather than anxiously anticipating what is to come. It is a state of being wholeheartedly engaged with life without any worry about failure or not measuring-up. It is also one where we feel a sense of connection to both our fellow humans and nature more generally because we realise that we are part of a greater whole.
Words are insufficient to fully explain a state of awe and wonder. It is probably best described as what you feel when looking up into a beautiful blue sky, or seeing a glorious sunset or when being moved by a piece of beautiful music. It is a state characterised by the absence of fear — there is no intermediate stage of partial fearfulness. It is either there or it is not.
Awe and wonder are enabled by an approach to living that is based on childlike curiosity and interest, where the aim is to ‘play‘, rather than to achieve or succeed. If the aim is curiosity and play then there is very little room for fear of failure to appear.
Try it for yourself — if you become truly curious about something that you fear, you will notice that it becomes almost impossible for any fearfulness to coexist with such curiosity. What tends to appear instead is awe and wonder, borne out of a genuine interest in whatever it is you are engaged with.
Applied to life, this implies that the more we embrace living with a sense of play and a fascination for the possibilities it has to offer, the more we can begin to free ourselves from fear.
It is by no means easy, particularly when our social conditioning is to the contrary. It is up to us then to choose differently. The beauty (and perhaps curse) of being human is that we have tremendous power to choose. It is then up to us to not choose the path of fear. It is up to us to choose the path of curiosity and wonder.