Fear is Another Word for Hope

The way towards freedom from fear was presaged long ago. As is clear in the Four Noble Truths, attachment is suffering because once we feel attached to something, even if we never lose it we will always be afraid of losing it. We will not be free.

Does this mean that we should be detached, uninvolved, unloving? No, it means that we need to be able to love fully without strings attached, so that we can love what or whom we love and give them freedom to be themselves. Only in this way are we free to be ourselves. This is harder than we think.

This is also easier than we think.

What really is attachment? Again we have to go back to our concept of identity, that which we think we are. An attachment, which I like to call investment because of all the meanings of attachment that can mislead us, is a hook that is connected to some aspect of our identity.

Think of it as an arrow that is tied by a string to some aspect of ourselves. When this arrow lodges in something or someone, we are connected to it, and it to us, by this string. Neither of us is free.

This is literally what we mean by “there are strings attached” or alternatively “no strings attached.”

This something or someone is what we think we need in order to be okay with what we are. Because this is so, we need control over it or them. And if we cannot have control, we are at risk of getting hurt in a very core place in our sense of who we are.

If there are strings attached to my love for you, I may be willing to give and give and give, but if you don’t recognize me as a wonderful giver, I will be angry and hurt and think you are ungrateful.

So beware. Unless you want to recognize me in that which I need recognition, don’t accept my gifts. But on the other hand, I need to beware because I have now given you power over how I feel about myself. If you don’t recognize me, I will not be able to recognize myself.

Similarly, if you want to write a book, it can be a creative project, a joy to contribute, with no strings attached. But it can also have an arrowhead and string that goes right back to a vulnerable place in you. You need to write a book in order to be an author, because if you are an author, you will gain respect and then you will be okay. Or if you are an author, your now deceased mother will be proud of you finally and then you will be okay.

It is almost as if we can recognize an attachment or investment by discovering if there is a string attached, and following it back to some place in our sense of ourselves that believes it needs support from the outside.

We can also follow the string back to people in our lives who depended on us to do what they wanted in order to feel okay about being who they were. I might follow the string of my success back to what my father expected of me in order to be okay, and therefore the end is lodged in me but also in my father.

Attachments or investments are not just lodged in things we have that we don’t want to lose. They are also lodged in what we hope we will gain someday that will prove finally whatever it is we want to prove. This is why fear of loss is another word for hope. Hopes and fears tie us to that which we believe will make us happy.

Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. And in fact, we cannot afford for it to be this way. Because as long as our identifications are lodged in events that take place outside ourselves, we will always be at risk, and we will never be free. We will always be inclined to manipulate others and to be manipulated ourselves.

How do people manipulate others? How does society manipulate us? Why are we so unfree and unsafe? The simple answer is that once someone else has something they can withhold or offer us that we believe we want or need in order to be okay, we are in their power.

The response some people have to this dilemma is simple. They promise themselves: I will never need anything from anyone, or accept anything from anyone. I will get it all for myself or do without. That way I will be free and safe.

And yet that is not an answer because it is based on the belief that we can be self=sufficient. We cannot. We are all of a piece, part of the same garment, woven together in a tapestry. My blue thread means nothing of itself without its place in the tapestry design.

Others decide to gain power over other people so that they can be sure to get what they need in order to be okay. But this still leaves both the powerful one as unfree as their victim because they need their victim in order to feel okay about themselves. Moreover, as long as they do this, they are not loving and being loved, and therefore they are losing out on what is best in life.

So what is the answer? Is it a case of I can’t live with you and I can’t live without you?

No. I accept what you offer me freely, because you want to, or because I have worked for it and earned it, or because we have some connection that means that what is yours is mine and mine is yours. It nourishes me and also weds me more deeply into the human family. I am willing also to fulfill certain agreed conditions in order to receive it—I work so many hours, and get this reward.

What I am not willing to do is be subject to your whims, or to your manipulation of me through threats and promises. I will choose what I want to do and not to do even if I lose out on what you are offering me. I’d rather do without than lose my inner freedom.

Bruno Bettleheim wrote about the concentration camp that the first movement of the authorities was to put inmates in a situation where they learned that nothing they could do would influence the outcome of their lives. If they tried to act in accordance with their beliefs they might be shot. If they didn’t completely humiliate themselves they might be shot. If they did, they might be shot anyway. There was no justice, no self-determination, no freedom.

And in this context people either got shot or gave up hope. The only people who maintained themselves were those that had a strong belief system that kept them whole throughout the process. Their identity came from within.

I am reminded also of the novel and film Sophie’s Choice. As I remember it, Sophie was told by the prison guard: Since you are Polish and not Jewish, I will give you a choice. I will kill either your son or your daughter. You choose which. If you don’t I will kill both.

And at that moment, she chose her son and her daughter was taken off to be killed. And although the two of them lived on, she never forgave herself and eventually killed herself.

And when I saw that film I could understand that suicide so deeply. How could you live with such a choice? And yet what choice did she have? And after all she did nothing wrong. Wrong was done to her. I tortured myself trying to work out what I would or could have done in that situation.

As I reflected upon it today I imagined being Sophie, presented with that choice. I took a moment to breathe, to come back to myself out of the ring of wanton male authority power that I was in the grips of.

And at that moment I said: “Take all of us. You will not force me to do what is not human for a mother to do.”

Was this is a good choice, since after all I risk losing three lives instead of one, and one of those is my son’s? I cannot on one level defend it. And yet it may be a good choice for the spirit.

And in the face of the human spirit, we cannot know how the prison guard would react. Perhaps he would have said. Go free. Or perhaps he would have killed us all. But then he would be making the choice, and though I am at his mercy, he hasn’t killed my spirit.

This seems to have taken us far from our original topic, so let us find our way back. The introduction was about finding the way to freedom from fear of what might happen that is outside our control.

The answer is not about needing nothing, becoming self sufficient, withdrawing from anything that anyone else has control over. This is a kind of anorexic choice, and it is not a choice that can lead us to flourish.

The answer has to do with being willing to search deeply where we have our identifications, where we gain a sense of who we are that depends on someone or something else. And in that search we need to be aware that every identification puts us at risk, and makes us vulnerable to manipulation.

With every identification there is an investment, and with every investment there is suffering because though we may never lose it, we fear its loss.

This is how we get burnt out. This is how we get ill. This is how we get depressed. This is how we get closed down. This is how we kill our own spirit. Because as soon as we are faced with a situation in which our good feelings about ourselves are at risk, we begin to make choices that lead us toward illusion, illness, even death.

Who am I? A mother, an author, a consultant, a therapist, a friend, a lover, a child of the universe, a daughter, a creator, a woman. Which of these identities depend on someone else to confirm them? All of them could, if they are constructed in that way. Or they could all be free, if I saw them that way.

I am a mother because I have children. Even if God forbid I lost my children, I would still be a mother. Nothing can change that. But what if I said: A good mother. Ah, there is the risk that I could be a bad mother, and in that I am lost.

An author? I have written two books, so I am an author. But what if I never write a book again, am I an author? If not, if I am only as good as my last book, then I am at risk. Leave me too long without a published book and I will go into depression.

And so on. And so it is safer for me to say: Who am I? I am that in me who had children, published books, was consulted by people and organisations, acted as a therapist etc. That in me who did all those things is my creative core. And that in me may never do those things again, but it is the seed out of which other things can also emerge.

I will never have children again in this life. I am past child-bearing age. And yet I can bear other kinds of fruit with the same love and enthusiasm and pain of birth and joy of discovery that I bore children. I wonder what these fruits will be. This book is one of those fruits, perhaps.

And as I identify with this creative core of who and what I am, I know also that whatever happens, I will be able to breathe, wait, and find a creative way forward. If I were a tree, I would not wish to be identified with the fruits, or even worse, the fruits that have already fallen. I would identify with the roots of my being, that in me that produced fruits and flowers and leaves and branches and fed me and nourished me and offered food and nourishment to others.

I am that in me who did all that. Who knows what I will do next. Give me a challenge, and let’s find out. I may never know until I am challenged. The oyster would have no reason to produce the pearl without the grit. I am not afraid of grit. I have a response to it that is enlivening, and that is all I need.

The other day I was talking to a consultant of mine about how far I had come in the direction I was going. And I said 4 out of 10. Then I wondered out loud, So what would it take for me to be a ten? I would want to have a partner, satisfying international work, a home I’m happy with, adventures and discoveries, etc. etc.

She challenged me: Why go for ten?

I wondered then what would an eight be. I found myself saying: Eight is the sense of being a living growing being that is always producing new shoots.

And of course 8 is everything I want and need. 10 is an illusion that would be swept away by the sands of time. 8 is renewable energy, a cycle that goes on, the snake biting its tail again and again. 8 is the true me. The other is BIG TROUBLE!

I have enough trouble already.

I choose 8.

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