A few thousand years ago, Sophocles wrote, “To the man who is afraid, everything rustles.”
As my friends and colleagues in West Africa are dealing with an incredibly challenging and often terrifying Ebola outbreak, and I sit up late writing from my new home in Indonesia, I’ve been thinking a lot about fear and how it colors the landscape of our experience — if we let it.
I know a lot about fear. I grew up under two authoritarian and violently oppressive dictators: Daniel Arap Moi in Kenya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. As a young person I read newspaper stories about people disappearing and being tortured for their political beliefs. In high school and university, a handful of friends were arrested and tortured for things like playing in heavy metal bands or being gay. I knew the world I grew up in was a scary and often violent place. I’m a positive person with a peaceful, healing view of the world because I choose to be.
What I also know is that the world is colored, more than we consciously realize, by our thoughts and perceptions about it. The story we tell ourselves about the world changes how we see and experience it. That is why, “to the man who is afraid, everything rustles.”
So in a time of fear, when you can easily point to evidence that the world is a scary place, and that your place in it is small and insignificant, I am here to tell you otherwise. The world is what we decide it is. It is what we make it. And we have far more control and influence over our experience and impact than we realize.
What kind of world are we going to make today? Tomorrow? The day after?
The reason my company made a free “About Ebola” app (Android / Apple) was because we had a choice about the kind of world we lived in. Was it a world where we were powerless to change things and merely had to sit and wait to see where the outbreak would rage?
Or was it a world where we had agency and power to change the course of events, to make ripples in the course of life and steer our impact and outcomes? We chose the latter — but we also chose to step aside and remove ourselves from the thick of things. We always have a choice.
I’ve spent a lot of time healing from the idea that the world is a scary place and that fear is a legitimate response to it. I like to remind myself of the Native American story of the two wolves, which I’m going to remind you about even if you’ve heard it before. (Reprinted from here.)
An elder was teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.
“One is evil — he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego.
“The other is good — he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.
“This same fight is going on inside you — and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The elder simply replied, “The one you feed.”
I’m not here to tell you not to be afraid or feel fear. That’s impossible, quite literally because our amygdalas, often called our “reptilian brains,” get really loud when they feel they need to protect us. That can be a really good thing – but not always. Because we get to choose how we react to the fear response, there are ways we can “hack” it to make sure it flows and passes, when it happens. The trick is not to “never be afraid,” but rather to not get stuck in feelings of fear. Moving the physical response out and through your body, and getting yourself to a more empowered place, is essential.
Fear gets expressed as fight, flight and freeze. With gentle mindfulness and a willingness to disrupt our own reflexive responses, we can actively make choices that are better for us and that encourage us to move out of fear towards healthy and happy responses and decisions.
I’ve been enjoying the techniques and “fear-hacks” that Katie Hendricks shares in this video, if you’re willing to try some very simple behavior changes, have a look. They work – and they’re simple enough that anyone can use them after watching the short video:
I had no idea there were so many simple physical hacks to getting out of the fear response. These are “non-denominational,” in that you don’t need to change your thoughts, your ideas or your beliefs about the fear — you just need to change the way you move and hold energy in your body during your fear response. I’ve tried it, and it’s easier than I thought it would be. That’s why I’m sharing it with you.
I hope you find this useful, especially if you’re one of our heroic colleagues dealing with the Ebola response or other disasters, emergencies and conflict situations.
And remember, if you find yourself in fear, it’s an opportunity to shift things around, presence yourself into your power, and decide what vision of the world you want to feed.
And if you know an activist or aid worker who could use this information, sharing is caring. To make sure you don’t miss a future update, subscribe to Expat Backup here.