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day 58: fear not

March 31, 2011

For several reasons, I spent a lot of time thinking about fear on Day 58 of my “a gift a day” project.

Reason #1: On Day 58, I was scheduled to deliver a training to a group of clinicians at a residential substance abuse treatment center.  I’d never been to this site.  My employer had provided me with very little information about my audience, telling me only than that I should arrive at 8 a.m. to set up my materials.

When I dutifully arrived at 8 a.m., the center’s clients were still eating breakfast in the cafeteria, where I was to deliver my training.  As I roamed the halls looking for the site’s administrator, (“Oh, I think she’s off today…” more than one employee told me on my fruitless trek) I happened upon a weary-looking staff person who told me I could enter the cafeteria and begin setting up tables at 8:30 a.m.

Ever compliant, I began unloading my copious training materials at 8:30, even though a few stragglers remained in the cafeteria.

While I was distracted with my bins and notebooks and laptop, I heard a chair fall to the ground and table legs scrape the linoleum.  I won’t type the words I heard shouted because this is a PG-rated blog, but before I could look up from my box of posters two women were engaged in a full-on fistfight.

It happened so fast.  I took two steps toward the door, wondering if I’d be able to locate help before Woman 1 bashed Woman 2’s face in.  In a matter of seconds, before I could do anything, the fighters had been separated and restrained, directed to separate corners by two staff members.

The two female employees who stepped in were tiny, each outweighed by the fighting women by at least fifty pounds.  I immediately wondered if they felt fear before they dove in to stop the fight.  I wondered if they instinctively responded, or if they jumped in because it was their professional duty, or if they separated the clients because they were concerned about the women’s safety.  I watched as one of the staff members put a protective arm around the shoulder of her charge as she ushered her out of the cafeteria, and I decided her response was at least partially fueled by kindness.

That was how Day 58 began, then, and the first reason I began thinking about fear.

Reason #2: I thought about a story I recently heard rerun on NPR.  On his way home from work one evening, New York City social worker Julio Diaz was approached by a mugger at knife point.  When the young man demanded Diaz’s wallet, he promptly gave it to him.  Diaz then said, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”  After giving the boy his coat, Diaz then invited him to dinner at a nearby restaurant.  Amazingly, the teen agreed to join him.  They talked over dinner, and when it came time to pay the tab, the mugger readily gave Diaz his wallet back.  Diaz eventually gave the boy $20 dollars in exchange for his weapon, and said this:

“I figure, you know, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.”

Hearing that story, I wondered if Julio Diaz ever felt afraid as he stared down a mugger with a knife.  Did he feel fear and extend kindness anyway, or had compassion already won the battle before it even began?

Reason #3: We have a good friend who is awaiting test results following exploratory surgery.  She is living in the space between uncertainty and proof, a space I imagine looks like fear.  On Day 58 I wrote out a card to her with Christopher Robin’s wise words to Winnie the Pooh:  “You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”  It wasn’t much, but it was my gift to her on Day 58.  Inside that shadowy place of not-knowing, I wanted to tell her, you’ve got depths of courage you’ve never explored.

In her book When Things Fall Apart:  Heart Advice for Difficult Times, Tibetan Buddhist and author Pema Chodron writes about fear.  We are usually advised, she writes, to distract or medicate ourselves through fear.  We’re told to make fear go away by any means necessary.

I certainly understand wanting to make fear go away.  Over and over, though, I’m shown examples that fear and love cannot peacefully coexist.  We don’t need to take a pill, we need to practice compassion.  This was the overarching theme of Day 58.

I just love Brett Dennen, the redheaded singer-songwriter who belts out love and social justice in a nasal vibrato.  I offer below both the music and lyrics to his song “Blessed,” one of the most uplifting tunes on my playlist.  Pema Chodron might call listening to this song an attempt to sweeten fear up or to smooth it over.

To me, it’s like a front row ticket to the knock-down-drag-out pitting love against fear (spoiler alert:  love dominates).

In today’s cosmic wrestling match, I hope you cheer for love.  Thanks, always, for showing up.

Brett Dennen, “Blessed”

I welcome the sun,
the clouds and rain,
the wind that sweeps the sky clean
and lets the sun shine again.
this is the most magnificent life has ever been.
here is heaven and earth
and the brilliant sky in between.
blessed is this life
and I’m gonna celebrate being alive.
blessed is this life
and I’m gonna celebrate being alive
I dwell in the darkness
I live in the light
I sleep in the afternoon
and become the noise in the night
I trespass in temptation
suffered in sacrifice
but I awake each day with a new sunrise
blessed is this life, oh
and I’m gonna celebrate being alive

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