A New Way to Look at Fear
I went up to Prescott, AZ over Labor Day weekend with my mother and my young daughter. There was an art festival in the town square, so the place was dotted with people and their dogs, meandering from booth to booth, admiring the wares and taking it all in. White tents and tall, willowy trees sheltered artisans and their customers from the bright sun and intense heat.
There was a lot of jewelry, handmade signs with clever quotes, t-shirts for people and their dogs, hand crafted furniture, blankets, tablecloths, framed photography, bird houses. If you could think of something that could be artfully designed and hand crafted, there was probably a booth for it in the Prescott square last weekend.
Some of my favorite booths were the ones with food in them. Freshly dipped caramel apples rolled in peanuts or toffee, kettle corn popped in large copper drums, homemade tamales, chocolate dipped cheesecake. And, oh, the best freshly squeezed lemonade ever, made with generous portions of sugar and large juicy lemons whose rinds floated in the clear plastic dispensers.
I was standing in a rather long line for one of those lemonades when I became acutely aware of the presence of swarms of bees flying around me and everyone else, hovering over people’s cups and food, and even landing on shoulders, arms, and clothing. People squirmed in their shoes, swatted them away, and some ran out of the line altogether.
Look at all these bees! I said to my daughter. A low, gravelly voice from behind me rose above the clamor. “Don’t be afraid,” it said.
I turned to see an older man with a closely trimmed white beard and long white eyebrows. His eyes twinkled and dimples appeared below his cheeks as he smiled. I looked at him and smiled back. “Don’t be afraid,” he continued. “Bees only sting when they sense fear.” He rocked back and forth on his feet, with his fingers wrapped comfortably around the straps of his faded overalls. “It’s true!” He insisted.
Hmmn. What an interesting thought. Is it true? I don’t know. I wouldn’t doubt it.
It got me thinking about fear in general, and the correlation it often has with unfortunate circumstances. Fear is widely considered to be the effect of an unpleasant and often painful stimulus. But the cause?
Could it be true that fear itself brings about some of the unfortunate circumstances that we are often most afraid of?
I think it’s entirely possible. When we are afraid, we get consumed with thinking we need to protect ourselves, have the last word, save face. We become far more occupied with getting than giving. A fearful response is often an overly aggressive one – one that can create more problems than it solves, and one that might otherwise be deemed as unnecessary. We say and do things we later regret. We can panic and engage in irrational and even hurtful behavior. And we cut ourselves off from the wisdom and insights we would otherwise be able to tap to constructively resolve our differences and creatively rise up to our challenges. Our solutions tend to be half baked and often unsatisfying – as well as short lived.
But how do you override that somewhat instinctive and often knee jerk, fear filled response to what you believe could hurt you?
“Don’t be afraid,” the white haired man said. Easy for you to say, buddy. He obviously sees bees differently than I do, or at least have in the past.
And maybe that’s the answer. Maybe it’s about learning to see things differently. Maybe it’s about questioning what we’ve come to believe and learning a different response – one that is more grounded, centered, and thoughtful. Perhaps it’s about trying something we’ve never had the presence of mind to consider.
The woman behind the counter handed me my lemonade and a single bee came along for the ride. It followed us throughout the square, from booth to booth, hovering around the large waxy cup that contained the sweet, refreshing liquid we waited in line for over ten minutes to receive. At one point, it landed on my shirt sleeve. I felt my blood pressure rise and took a deep breath. What if I get stung? I tried not to think about it. It flew away and came back a few seconds later.
We couldn’t help ourselves. We shooed it away with our napkins. It kept flying back. We tried hard to stay brave and calm, but we kept our napkins unfurled and continued to flap them around whenever the bee got too close.
We made it home without any bee stings. But the wheels in my mind are still turning at the thought that perhaps there is a different response available in every fear filled situation – one that will gently reveal itself to us when we learn to reframe what we see in such a way that it is no longer a threat. Is it possible?
One thing is for sure: the next time I begin to feel that familiar rush of adrenaline, I’ll think back to that white-haired man in his frayed overalls, with a large grin on his face and a quiet wisdom in those sparkling eyes. “Don’t be afraid. They only sting when they sense fear.”
For more on Redefining Fear:
Bee image by alle from BigstockPhoto.com.