Nothing so benumbs and paralyzes action as fear. Had man no fear of drowning he would be able to swim the first time he plunged into the water. Were it not for fear of failure many a man now at the bottom of the ladder would be considerably higher up. Our fears are always hampering us. We are conscious of ability to do better things, but opportunities are missed through fearing to attempt.
Yet fear occupies an important place in the scheme of things, and is essential to human development. It is at once man's worst enemy and best friend. Like pain, it is a useful servant and a vicious master. Without the red flag of pain informing the mind that something is wrong with the body, man might suffer untimely death.
Fear is a necessary ingredient of growth: an aspect of prudence, it enters also into the equation of faith, hope and courage. Charles Rann Kennedy speaks of "a peculiar kind of fear they call courage," and Spinoza avers "Fear cannot be without hope, nor hope without fear." The sailor fearing the approaching tempest furls his sails and battens down his hatches. Prepared to meet the storm, he outrides it. Fear makes man prudent; he calculates risks, balances them against his resources, and is prepared for eventualities.
Obviously, a perfectly fearless person could not be correctly classified as courageous, for courage is the soul's triumph over fear. By the same token, a person absolutely hopeless would be devoid of fear. One could not be hopeful unless he were also a little afraid: fear keeps hope alive, while hope keeps fear from expiring.
Fear likewise is an ingredient of faith. Faith emerges phoenix-like from the ashes of fear, enabling the soul to gain supremacy over it. As long as one solitary fear remains faith is necessary; but when the last vestige of fear is extinguished faith grasps its objective.
In releasing the genius of man fear often plays a leading role. Actors, singers, and public speakers, even after long experience on the stage or rostrum, are liable to fits of panic. In fact, the man immune from panic is never a front-rank man. The distressing fear-thought which may suddenly grip him as he awaits his turn, though it has to be grappled with, is in reality an urgent summons to genius. It marshals his inner resources, enabling him to rise to heights otherwise unattainable.
Probably the most poignant fear of mankind is the fear of death. Herein lies life's deepest tragedy for, as Publilius Syrus asserts: "The fear of death is more to be dreaded than death itself." The tragedy is deepened by the fact that he who fears death is missing the joy of the present hour; losing, indeed, the life he longs for.
"Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments; for this is the whole duty of man." He who dedicates his every faculty to the fulfillment of his duty has no room for fear. He who neglects what he knows to be his duty cannot avoid being pursued by fear. For a sense of duty is omnipresent. Like the Deity it pursues all men, making them fearless when discharging their duty, fearful when neglecting it.
That mind and body are completely integrated is now universally recognized. In his book, The Force of Mind, Dr. A. T. Schofield writes: "Fear can close in a moment miles of capillary vessels, which shame can quickly open." Anger and fear may turn the skin of the face white, while bad news may bring about a spasm of the coronary arteries, and sudden death.
Worry is one of the devil's brood, the oldest child of fear, and he who nurses excessive anxiety is not only intensifying the ethereal forces of worry in the racial consciousness, but by so much is focussing them upon himself. Every period of ungoverned apprehension demands its pound of flesh, as British Medical Journals testify. Writes Sir George Paget, "In many cases I have reason for believing that cancer has its origin in prolonged anxiety." Sir Clifford Allbut declares it is an undoubted clinical fact that granular kidney is often produced by prolonged mental agitation.
"I am not an old man: I have lived a long time and have seen lots of trouble — most of which never came to pass." Every person will recognize in this confession an impeachment of himself. He knows that most of his worries are imaginary; that it is not work but worry which kills; that worry exhausts his vitality just when he needs it most. What all of us want to know is how to keep from worrying: how to break ourselves of this most insidious of habits.
Worry is rooted in fear and fed on egotism; it springs from the habit of making self-interest the yardstick by which to evaluate everything that arrests the attention. It is induced by auto-suggestion. Certain events, the consequences of which we cannot see, have taken place, or are about to take place, and we are worried by the idea as to how they will affect us. That is to say, we place the worst instead of the best construction on the affair, thereby suggesting to our mind ideas of discord instead of harmony, of evil instead of good. We are here using our imaginative faculty destructively.
It would seem that having to endure uncertainty and suspense is the cause of worry, but on closer investigation we find that such is not the case. For some days one is worried to death by things which would not disturb us in the least at other times. It is not the uncertain element then, but rather one's own ideas concerning it, which are the disquieting factor.
No man can eliminate accident or uncertainty from his affairs, but he can control the thoughts with which he regards them. The ability to face critical situations with a placid instead of a worrying mind is that which distinguishes the able man from the mediocre. Nelson was never happier than when in the heat of battle; when the situation was most critical he was most exultant. He attributed his high spirits to his intense conviction that, as he had done everything possible for man to do, Divine Providence was taking charge of affairs.
The old-time philosophers gave much thought to this worrying propensity, and offer sound advice for neutralizing it. Epictetus writes:
Practice saying to every harsh appearance — Thou art an Appearance,
and not at all the thing thou appearest to be. . . .
Remember, it is not he that striketh or he that revileth that doth any man an injury,
but the opinion about these things, that they are injurious.
Marcus Aurelius advances a similar argument:
Let accidents happen to such as are liable to the impression, and those that feel misfortune may complain of it, if they please. As for me, let what will come, I can receive no damage by it, unless I think it a calamity; and it is in my power to think it none, if I have a mind to.
He that frets himself because things do not happen just as he would have them, and secedes and separates himself from the law of universal nature, is but a sort of an ulcer of the world, never considering that the same cause which produced the displeasing accident made him too.
Few of us seem to realize that all the events impinging on our lives are indirectly the work of the same Creative Spirit by whom we ourselves were created. If this threat to my peace of mind were an evil created by the devil, I might have cause for worry; but since it is incidental to the Divine Scheme of things, good must ultimately issue from it.
It is just as unwise to shrink from life, trying to escape worry, as to dial the mind to troublesome thoughts; indeed, shrinking from life is a sure way of attracting trouble. In his rectorial address at Glasgow University Lord Stanley emphasized this point:
The man who has only himself to please finds, sooner or later, and probably sooner than later, that he has got a very hard master; and the excessive weakness which shrinks from responsibility has its own punishment too, for where great interests are excluded little matters become great, and the same wear and tear of mind that might have been at least usefully and healthfully expended on the real business of life is often wasted in petty and imaginary vexations, such as breed and multiply in the unoccupied brain.
Man cannot stem the tide of life and debar changes inherent in its nature, nor control events outside him; but it is always in his power to safeguard his emotions by rejecting opinions and ideas which give rise to worry and disquietude. Philosophy may serve as a stepping stone. One should realize that nothing walks with aimless feet, and that nothing truly essential to man can be taken from him. Few things are as distressful as they seem in anticipation. Every loss constitutes a compensatory gain, and every empty space in the heart is designed to be occupied with richer life. If we can follow Epictetus' suggestion to look the worry straight in the face, and analyze it, we shall observe that the basis of worry is not in reality, but in the opinion formed of it. A mind occupied with constructive ideas has no room for worry; unoccupied minds are like millstones which, having no grist to grind, grind themselves.
The Psalmist offers a valuable suggestion. "Thy word," he says, "have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against thee." One divine thought, if sustained in contemplation, will put a thousand fears to flight. The secret lies in lifting the mind from the ego-center to the God-center.
"Why are ye so fearful, O ye of little faith?" still asks the Master of Men. He supplies the answer: Too little faith, too little love. "There is no fear in love; perfect love casteth out fear."
Fear is both physical and psychical. The whole animal creation is subject to fear. If man were a disembodied spirit fear would still haunt him, as fear finds expression through his emotional nature. With its evil brood of worry and depression, fear thrives in our racial thought, hovering like a fog over the world of mankind. Man cannot fight his fears any better than he can fight fog; his only resort is to climb above the fog, above his fears, into the sunshine of his unexplored spiritual nature.
Such climbing is not easy; its difficulties should not be underestimated. There is no cheap panacea for the fear-neurosis. Never should one lose sight of the fact that the entire background of man's life, all his mental and emotional qualities, is integrated in his fears. Behind his fears, intensifying their power, lie lack of faith, lack of love, egocentric thoughts, neglect of duty, evil speaking, envy, avarice, and the like, the mastery of which necessitates a radical and absolute change in his polarity.
As all man's emotional faculties are integrated in his fears, so likewise all his spiritual qualities must be marshaled for the conquest of fear. Man cannot love God while hating his neighbor; he cannot have faith in God while distrustful of Providence; he cannot be a friend of man and speak evil of him; he cannot be neighborly while envious of him; he cannot run with the hare one day and hunt with the hounds the next. Compromise may seem to have its place in worldly affairs, but not in self-mastery. It is impossible to become immune from fear or have a sense of spiritual wholeness while the heart is centered on things that promote fear.
To conquer fear, man should build up his spiritual reserves and channel them into the Augean stable of his heart, sweeping it through and through. As in the heart of the cyclone there is a place of calm, so in the cleansed heart of man is a haven of tranquility.
(From Sunrise magazine, August 1954; copyright © 1954 Theosophical University Press)