Ekodo: Fear and Courage
The meandering notes of a lazily played guitar wafted through tall gently swaying trees on that midsummer morning. The sun seared my head now wet from the effort of sanding and painting this roof in the heat. A spider was playing hide-and-seek with me – pressing tightly into the underside of the weather board, and pretending that if it could not see me then I could not see it either.
I casually tickled it away with my fingers and dangled it on its silky filament, landing it on a nearby leafy branch. “There you go little fella.”
Later that day I discovered that the long grey body of this spider, with its white bum and athletic physique belonged to a ‘White Tail’ spider – an unwelcome immigrant capable of inflicting a malevolent and infectious bite best avoided wherever possible.
Wow – and I held this little menace to move it to safety from the perils of entombment in rapidly drying paint on a hot summer’s day.
This little encounter helped me realise something about courage. Because I was blissfully ignorant of what I was risking by caressing a poisonous spider, my actions were far from courageous. They were simply innocent. Courage would require me to tickle that spider now knowing the risks.
This spider taught me that courage is only possible as an act of transforming fear into equanimity, by leaning into fear itself and discovering that it can be endured.
There is no courage without fear. So fear is nothing to be afraid of – it is a doorway into courage.
In the work of looking after the planet and each other there are ample opportunities to experience the pangs of fear – like deciding to publicly express disapproval of behaviours that cause unnecessary harm; like performance anxiety in a meeting; like an aversion to confrontation; like worrying whether getting involved will do harm to one’s reputation or employability.
Our culture steers us away from rites of passage that lure us into the existential depths of fear so that we can experience its transformation into courage. This is perhaps a consequence of the life of great convenience we now live – the sad necessities of comfort that in their aggregate fill the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, empty our inshore waters of fish, strip forests from tropical hillsides for palm oil for our biscuits, and plunge countless people into slave labour in developing countries so that we can have less jobs in manufacturing on our own shores.
A lifestyle so comfortable that we suffocate in meaninglessness and fear, and in so doing write a blank cheque to our masters who tear down ecosystems, enlist our nation in the foreign wars of a distant empire, and exploit entire populations for the pleasures of consumption. Here meaning comes not from the rich contrast of life and death, but from oversized flat screen televisions, flash cars, real estate, and anxiety. The result is a docile herd that marches daily ever closer to (and sometimes past) tipping points in the global system on which we all depend – all because we live in fear of losing our privileges.
When I start doing something hitherto constrained by fear, I discover that fear itself is quite do-able. Then the fearful action – like planning and undertaking an action to halt unnecessary suffering – is not such a big deal. Standing on a dirt road in the still, pre-dawn light with the chorus of grey warblers, tui, and riflemen and the steamy clouds rising from the rainforest in the hills beyond is tantalizing. The arrival of the gruff logging vehicles is exhilarating – a peak experience. Calmly informing the police that the people still sitting on the road will need to be removed by force of the law is serene. Filming it and then seeing it on the six o’clock news that evening is triumphant.
If we refuse to bear witness to injustice because of fear, we are letting our own inaction work in the service of behaviours that are wrecking the place. As a consequence, we ordinary, mainstream people discover that we are politically asleep, and convince ourselves that we are emotionally incapable of doing something remarkably meaningful about the world around us. It is ordinary mainstream people who elect tyrants and turn blind eyes to the collateral damage they cause, whilst harvesting wealth for the rich and delivering meager benefits to the voting masses. When ordinary mainstream people courageously stand up to injustice, such injustice is more difficult to sustain. Tyrants get voted out.
A good friend reminded me recently that we only ever master something by pushing ourselves slightly beyond our comfort zone and into fearful territory. This is where we extend the reach of our capabilities to become adepts in the mysterious arts of compassionate action. My six year old son decided he wanted to jump off the 5m diving board at our local pool. He did, four times that day. I followed, and shit myself, but managed to jump even with the slightly painful tingling in my feet and the mental refusal as I approached the precipice. His rite of passage pushed himself beyond fearful territory. If he can I can. What a great teacher he is.
Meeting our fear is our sacrifice. Experiencing its metamorphosis into courage is our celebration.
So fear and courage are not two things, but simply two sides of the same coin – both in language and in practice. The closeness of these opposites makes for compelling mythologies of the endless antics of a deity like Ares (ancient Greek god of both fear and courage) in the glow of whose adventures our lives are immeasurably enriched.
Sean Weaver is the founder and host of Ekodo – a professional development life-skills programme for compassionate agents of change. He lives in Wellington. See the Ekodo Facebook group here: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=47683391767
Sean is also a climate change solutions consultant through his business Carbon Partnership, where he focuses primarily on protecting forests.