Wednesday, October 27, 2004


We’ve got nothing to fear but fear itself –
Not pain not failure not fatal tragedy
Not the faulty units in this mad machinery
Not the broken contacts in emotional chemistry

Lyrics by Rush, from “The Weapon – Part II of Fear.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt used words to those in the first line in his first inaugural address, during the depths of the Great Depression in 1933. But what is fear?

In the last few weeks I’ve experienced a recurring cycle of anxiety that goes like this: It starts as a vague, nameless dread. Then it builds to a constriction in the throat, a hollow feeling in the stomach, and a feeling of fatigue. It is hard to think, sit still, or concentrate. Eventually it goes away, often very abruptly, leaving a feeling of giddy relief and uncontrollable, inappropriate mirth. The root of this anxiety, this fear, is the uncertainty of facing an unknown situation.

We say we “fear” many things: death, pain, suffering, solitude, and separation from loved ones. I think we fear the unknown aspects of these situations, rather than the situations themselves. Take death, for example: everyone knows she or he will eventually die, but nobody really knows what death is. Thus there is no fear of death; there is a fear of the uncertainty of death. Many people find solace from this fear in religious assurances of eternal life with God, Jesus, or Allah, or of being reborn in a new body. Some take the view that death leads to nothing, or to endless sleep. Of course for those who REALLY want something to be afraid of, there are the eternal fires of Hell. UUs need not apply.

Any imagined situation causing fear becomes real and present when it is experienced, and then it can be dealt with. When the imagined situation becomes reality, the original fear can be overcome. Any remaining fear is of uncertainty about the future. In an extreme situation, this becomes cyclic, with each successive round of uncertainty resulting in a lower level of anxiety.
For example, when I first found out I was being sent to Iraq, I was overcome by anxiety and disbelief – this was my worst possible nightmare. By the time I left home, with the knowledge that I would be in San Diego for a while, much of the initial uncertainty was gone; I was in the “it’s just another deployment; I’ll do my time and come home” mindset. As my departure from California approached, the anxiety returned. What would Iraq be like? Would I be scared? Would there be constant danger? Upon arrival here, the reality was honestly pretty mundane, compared to what I had imagined.

The latest stage of this cycle has been anxiety about going to a FOB where there were reportedly more frequent indirect fire attacks. Was it really more dangerous? What would I do if I were wounded? What would it be like during a mortar attack? During my recent FOB visit, I got an answer to the third question sooner than I expected.

I had spent the morning with a young helicopter pilot who was showing us around, briefing us on the area, and telling us what to do in case of an indirect fire attack. “Always hit the deck – that’s the safest place. If the rounds are far away, run for a bunker. If they’re close, stay down until the last impact and then run for a bunker.” We went to lunch early because the previous day, the chow hall had been attacked at the end of the lunch hour.

We stood in line; me feeling very exposed, and then once we got our food we sat down to eat. It’s a little awkward eating with a flak jacket on, but that’s the way it goes. As I started to eat, it occurred to me to ask “so, what do we do if we start taking fire in here?” The good captain replied “same as outside – hit the deck, get your helmet on, and wait for the stampede out the back door to end. Once it clears out, we run for the bunkers.” OK, sounds reasonable.
Less than a minute later I got to practice this procedure, because BOOM BOOM, the mortar shells started landing pretty close to where we were sitting. I have a vivid memory of everyone around me diving to the deck like stringless marionettes, and then I was fumbling to get my helmet strap fastened as the rounds kept falling. There seemed to be a lull in the impacts, so we scrambled outside and dived into the crowded bunkers. I felt like laughing hysterically with the release of adrenaline and the knowledge that I was OK. At that moment I finally felt like I was in a war zone. My helmet and flak never felt so comfortable.

There were casualties, but no fatalities. One of the tents belonging to some pilots took a hit, messing up their stuff pretty well. It could have been worse. There are lots of Marines and soldiers who go through this, and more, on a daily basis.

Now that I know what a mortar attack is like, most of my anxiety is gone. I know what to expect, what to do, and how to stay as safe as possible. Having let go of the fear, I can be open to truly experiencing everything else that happens without being ruled by uncertainty and anxiety about the outcome.

There are three common themes to the resolution of my fears in these cycles of anxiety: first, the reality is never as bad as the imagined unknown. The fear is all in me! Second, in each iteration of the cycle, my level of uncertainty about the situation (and thus the amount of fear about it) declined. Finally, I did not go through any of this alone. In every case, there were at least a couple of other people going through the same thing, and we drew strength from each other.

There is nothing to fear but the fear of facing the unknown alone. Overcome uncertainty with knowledge and community, let go of the fear, and you free yourself to live your life intentionally and with joy.


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