Hello, and welcome to the 17th annual April Fools’ Observance! I developed this paradoxical celebration some time ago, while studying philosophy, which as we all know is for lovers of wisdom, as well as the bachelor’s degree for fools who aren’t sure what they’re doing after college. When I was studying I noticed something foolish about wisdom— it seems like a lot of things called wise contradict a bunch of other things also called wise. If you were to listen to all the wisdom you’re given, you would surely end up foolish. So I thought, I’ll gather people together, and give some wise advice about how to deal with the contradictions of wisdom.
So that’s basically the premise— I pick an item of interest, gather the contradicting wisdom about it, and then sort through it so you don’t have to! And since all the wisdom contradicts, I refer to the whole thing as a folly.
This year my topic is— The Folly of Fear.
Surveying the Sources
This topic has already been covered extensively in the human canon, so I thought I’d start out by surveying some sources, and then hopefully sharing more original thinking about it. So let’s start with wise advice that discourages fear:
Some will tell you not to fear because fear is always based on an illusion. The author of the Psalms proclaims “The LORD is the stronghold of my life-- of whom shall I be afraid?”-- see, it makes no sense to fear, when God is on your side! Roman Emperor/Stoic Marcus Aurelius meditated on the delusional nature of fear from a more secular perspective, saying: “The first step: Don’t be anxious. Nature controls it all. And before long, you’ll be no one, nowhere-- like Hadrian, like Augustus.” See, it makes no sense to fear, because you never had any control or significance in the first place! Whether God is in control or no one is in control, fear is based on illusion.
Others will tell you not to fear because fear is simply unhelpful. This is why FDR told us that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” why Dune calls fear “the mind killer”, and why Rebbe Nahman emphasizes that “the main thing is not to fear.” Fear is unhelpful because it gets in the way of decision-making and action! Alternatively, it leads to poor decision-making and evil action-- no less a sage than Yoda himself advises Anakin that “Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate… leads to suffering.” So, fear is unhelpful.
Now let’s survey wisdom that encourages fear. Admittedly there’s not as many, but I think they’re still powerful:
Some will tell you that we should listen to our fear, because it clues us in to deep truths about ourselves and our reality. The proverbial Biblical author praises fear, proclaiming: “Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” From a more secular and therapeutic perspective, fear highlights that which we hold sacred and would seek to protect. Fear points towards deep truths.
Others would add that we should listen to our fear, because it’s good for motivation. It’s for this reason that Aristotle includes fear in his definition of courage-- in face of danger, it’s good to act, but specifically in a way that incorporates concern about danger! To act without fear is not a virtue for Aristotle; the virtue of courage integrates fear with action. Similarly, noted Python John Cleese dedicates an entire chapter heading to this subject, advising us to “Get your panic in early,” using our fear as motivation to action.
Are we seeing now how important and helpful fear is? How it puts us in touch with our values, our reality, and our motivation towards courageous action? Truly, no less a sage than Luke Skywalker himself warns Rey that “Confronting fear is the destiny of a Jedi. Your destiny.”
Let’s summarize: Fear is based on illusions, and puts us in touch with deep truths. Fear stops us from acting, or motivates evil actions; and fear motivates wise action. So, what the hell is going on here??
Alan Watts, 20th century English populariser of Eastern wisdom, sums it up in his book: “The Wisdom of Insecurity”:
There is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity…. If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure.
The Meaning of the Contradiction
It’s a good contradiction, right? Here’s how I like to put it: fear is a reflection of our in-between position in the world-- that is, we have some power but not much, and some significance but not much. Foolish ways to overcome fear always involve rejecting or denying this in-between position. Some aim for more power by beefing up security; Watts points out how this actually fuels insecurity. Others, like Aurelius, try to shake off their fear by ridding themselves of any sense of self-importance-- to me this feels at most rather depressing, and at least inauthentic.
The actual state of things then, is that we seem to exist with some passing stability and some passing significance. If it’s unclear, what we’re really talking about here is: boundaries, and how hard it is to live with them. When we want to grow, we’re afraid of being trapped by our boundaries. When we want to survive, we’re afraid of our boundaries being broken. Anytime we are feeling anxious and fearful, it’s likely that our natural desires to live or grow are being threatened by the harsh reality of our boundaries, or the harsh reality beyond them.
Some Wise Advice
So, then, how shall we deal wisely with this contradiction? What do we do with fear, in all its wisdom and foolishness?
Let’s start with an understanding of fear as related to the challenges of having boundaries; in fact let’s make it more concrete by talking about it as a response to edges. Makes sense, right-- when we’re close to an edge, we tend to get… edgy! So what can we do with an edgy feeling.
Let’s make this super-literal-- one place that I often feel edgy is when I’m next to a high ledge. Specifically, I’m thinking of the George Washington Bridge walkway, or more specifically, that one part that doesn’t have a high fence, and where social conventions place me on the side closer to the ledge. Ugh, that feeling-- in my imagination, I’m already falling, right-- and just watch what happens to my hands, shoulders, chest, face as I talk about this. So what do I do? I bring my attention back to my current center of gravity, which places my head atop my shoulders atop my spine atop my legs, all stably on the walkway, at least in this moment. Yes, the edge is scary, and also… I’m remaining on this side of it, and so I can draw my attention to that continuing experience of stability. I tolerate the edginess, and I don’t lose awareness of stability. This awareness doesn’t dispel fear, but neither does it feed into it, and that seems to be the best we can do with fear.
Well, I suppose we can do one better, by recognizing those situations in which going over the edge could actually be growthful rather than fatal. I was listening to a podcast recently about the Grateful Dead’s live free-jazz explorations, known infamously across setlists as “Drums/Space.” The episode was discussing a particular well-known performance, 10/26/89 in Miami, which many audience members, who may or may not have been under the influence, found frightening… and compelling. One listener's comment stuck out to me: “This is kind of scary but it’s interesting.” (repeat that) What a brave and inspiring combination of sentiments! To be curious at the same time as afraid-- it’s a difficult combo to master, but think of how rewarding it could be, what I might learn about myself and the world, if I can accompany fear with curiosity.
Now, about “accompanying fear with curiosity”-- it sounds nice, but in actual practice, it might just be a bunch of therapeutic hogwash. When I’m afraid, I usually don’t feel anything else, as I’m rather busy feeling afraid! To combine fear and curiosity requires finding some element of security, and thus being able to engage with fear and risk while maintaining that element of security; in therapy, this is called secure attachment. Secure attachment can be given or earned, and so is likely my best professional answer to the question of dealing with fear. But honestly, all of this feels too intellectual, and the experience of fear is not very intellectual, so I want to provide an answer that’s a bit more inspirational than all this.
I’ll close with a metaphor that’s been appealing to me recently, one that inspires in me the ability to allow fear even while disliking it. I call it…
Living at the Shoreline
Imagine a vacation day at the beach. The beach is fun and relaxing, and yet it’s also a place that is rife with edges, and even worse, moving edges. Going to the beach means hanging out in the shoreline AKA the “active coastal zone,” which is everything one finds above the continental shelf (so, like, the ocean) and below the part of land that’s never eroded by water (so, like the far side of a dune; or a wall). Some people love playing in the water, with waves constantly rolling or crashing against them; other people hang out at the shore itself, where the waves play upon the sand; still others prefer the beach, playing in the “intertidal” area where sand gets covered and uncovered throughout the day and night. You can picture it all now yeah? The waves, the sand, the tide? The active coastal zone, the various moving edges of water and sand-- there’s so much happening! It’s all very stimulating and fun; y’know, like a day at the beach.
Now imagine living on the beach-- what a nightmare, right? The tide comes in and gets my stuff all wet. Any kind of enclosure is eventually swept or eaten away by the water. And the waves! They never stop rolling in. To try to establish firm and secure grounding at the beach, is alternatingly exhausting and terrifying.
Living at the shoreline requires us to redefine success and security. If my expectation is to get repeatedly hit by waves big and small, then I can’t think of getting knocked over as failure. Getting knocked over by a wave is just what it sometimes feels like to live at the beach. Getting your stuff moved around and your space eroded is just what it feels like to live in-between the tides. Success then… is about remaining at the shoreline, rather than getting swept into the ocean, or rather than just quitting the beach altogether. Success is about working with the waves, developing a lifestyle that integrates the rhythm of the storm, the calm, and the tides. Success is about working with the feeling of edginess, rather than blowing up or shutting down in response to it.
But why put up with this at all? If it’s so awful to live on the beach, why not just leave? I hope you won’t mind, but for some reason this question got me all spiritual and mystical, because, well… the sea is terrifying, and it’s the source of life. The shoreline is the site of pleasure and terror, the source of life and of destruction. Ultimately it’s an act of radical love to embrace life, despite the fact that it will kill us. In embracing life, we are led to embrace fear, to incorporate it into our overall vision of life.
To live well with fear then, is an expression of love for life, as well as resignation to life’s terrors. As Naomi used to say to me, during the first pandemic wave, with both great resignation and great love: “This is where we are now.” Similarly, we can echo Steven Tyler’s own philosophy regarding life on the edge: “We can tell ‘em no, or we could let it go, but I would rather be a-hangin’ on.”
Thanks for your time today!