Is it possible to live in a universe without fear?
I wish more people would ask.
Anxiety disorders are the number one diagnosis of the mental health industry. Each year, about 40 million American adults seek treatment for debilitating fear and dread. Now children are swelling their ranks. In one recent year, 85 million prescriptions were filled for the leading antianxiety drugs. Antidepressant use has quadrupled over the last twenty years. About one in ten people suffer from chronic sleeplessness. Deaths from prescription painkillers are epidemic and higher than those from illegal narcotics. There are 140 million people in the world with alcoholism. In America, heavy drinking is the third leading preventable cause of death. These numbers may not be completely accurate, but they are entirely true. If they don’t apply to you, then they apply to people you know and love, people you live with or used to live with, people barely alive or dead too soon.
We live stupefied by our own deep terror, our unmet fears. Out of fear, we crush our own spirits, break our own hearts — and if we don’t stop — rot our own flesh.
How do we end up like this? I don’t know why we reach for noxious cocktails to drown our fear and pain, but we all do, and they don’t work. Every time we turn away from what is right in front of us we are headed in the wrong direction. So don’t turn away.
These days we live in what we consider to be a mobile society. It seems like we can do anything from anywhere. And yet, we are immobilized as never before. Some of us are too terrified to unlock our doors and step into our neighborhoods. Too timid to take a walk, drive our cars, or board a plane. We live straitjacketed by our touch screens and chained by convenience. If what we’re looking for isn’t on the closest corner, like Starbucks, or streaming, like Netflix, we don’t feel terribly inclined to go farther. I hardly ever have to leave my own confines, having fashioned a world in which nearly everything is delivered to me automatically.
Convenience is nifty in some ways, and a nuisance in other ways. Things that don’t really matter are closer than ever, while the things that matter most drift farther and farther away. The things that matter are always going to require that you go beyond your familiar four walls.
From time to time people ask me to help them find a “line.” The point where it’s permissible to resist. Where is the line between caring for myself and caring for my family? Where is the line between doing too much and doing too little? Where is the line between the life I have and the life I’ve always wanted? Between daylight and dark, fear and courage, sorrow and joy, today and tomorrow, you and me?
There is no line. No wall, no gate, no limit, no barrier, no lock or key, and no one stopping you, except that one who has stopped to look for a line: you.
You have to cross beyond that imaginary checkpoint, when going nowhere is no longer an option, when you are afraid, sad, disillusioned, desperate, or just plain lost. You have to start out to start over. You have to go through to get by. You have to leave the known world to find the world; leave the earth to find the earth, if only for that split second when you lift one foot and place it in front of the other.
It’s not easy. There are no shortcuts or detours. No one can tell you how to fast-forward your bliss. If they do, they’re just making it up. I found out for myself that none of the secret formulas work. That’s why I won’t tell you how to fix a relationship, guarantee your happiness, or realize your passion. I can’t repair your past or re-engineer your future. I don’t know the alchemy that turns fiction into fact or pain into pleasure. There is no sure thing. I can only ask this: What are you ignoring? What are you resisting? What part of your life have you locked out and sealed shut? And I am not talking about something invisible and unspeakable. Just take a look at what is right in front of you — the obvious and unavoidable — and step foot there.
And when it seems you are at your very lowest, in your darkest and most desperate hour, know that you are not alone. All my hours are desperate. Every moment is my last, best chance to live, and I take it, or I wouldn’t still be here right in front of you.
Fear is a gate, but it’s an open gate. Step through, and you are free. Don’t you want to be free?
Lift one foot and place it in front of the other.
Auburn Public Theater
Quiet Joy: A Zen Retreat for Busy People
Copper Beech Institute
West Hartford, CT