Dear Donagh,

… I have a tendency to be very anxious about the future, I see problems everywhere out there.  I envy people who are able to go ahead and take risks in their stride. I wish I had some of their calmness….  Can that kind of thing be learned?  I did a couple of courses a couple of years ago – about self image and self assertiveness and so on.  They were very good and I felt helped at the time, but I'm still the same today.  Is there anything out there that would help someone like me?  Can you say something on this?  Jim

Dear Jim,

The first thing I noticed is that you used the words “out there” twice in your letter.  It would be helpful, I think, to look at why you feel that both the problem and the remedy are “out there.” 

Yes of course there are lots of problems out there; we are never entirely safe and secure.  But if you keep concentrating on what is out there you are undermining your own resources for dealing with any of these problems.  If you deprive yourself of your own resources everything becomes a big problem.  Even little problems become big if you feel you have no ability to deal with them.  Don’t forget to look at what you have “in here”.  No courses or books or advice can ever substitute for that.  You have to look at yourself.  In particular you have to look into the heart of your fear. 

Here’s a word of practical advice from a long time ago, and from a man who doesn’t always appear practical at first sight.  Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) wrote: “It is not situations or things that hold you back: what holds you back is you yourself in the situations and things.”  It’s a remarkably balanced expression.  If he had said, “It’s not the situations, it’s just you,” he would appear to be reducing it fully to psychology.  But he holds the two sides together: it is you and the situation; or better, as he put it, it is you in the situation.  You have been inclined to see it all ‘out there’.  What I'm suggesting is that you balance it with what is going on ‘in here’. 

Let’s look at fear in general (but only you can look at your own fears).  Does fear ever help you?  I'm sure that if we were entirely free of fear our species would have become extinct long ago.  Fear has its uses.  It is a natural instinct, so it must be for our survival.  But it can go over the top.  It can become so exaggerated in us that it paralyses us – just the opposite of what it’s meant to do.  The animals manage their instincts, including this one, with sweet reasonableness.  I often think they have a better title to be called ‘rational animals’ than we do.  They don’t think about the future, so they have no fear of it.  But our fears about the future have no boundaries, since the future doesn’t exist yet.  We become terrified of what might happen, and no argument can count against it, since nobody really knows anything about it.  You could be afraid of dogs, let’s say, and that is a limited fear because dogs exist in the present, and you can always check out whether there’s a dog nearby.  But the future….  Because it is nowhere it is everywhere.  It can rob you of your life.  I heard of an old man on his deathbed who said, “I've had an awful lot of problems and difficulties throughout my life, but most of them never happened.” 

I would suggest that you hold sessions of fear gazing with yourself!  Keep looking at your fears until you know what they are made of – just thoughts running in your head.  They have the appearance of being reasonable, but see how unreasonably they deprive you of your peace; they even deprive you of yourself. 

You might also like to check out a few other things on this website: ‘Between Ourselves’ in 2006, and Jacob’s Well 2001 (two articles: one on Fear, the other on Fear and Faith). 

More power to you, Jim.


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