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What do you fear?
SCENARIO: You are in a future world where the Head Warden of a notorious prison has developed a reputation for mentally torturing his prisoners, using their greatest fears to make them confess to crimes, disclose family secrets, hand over treasure. For some reason – there must have been a mix-up! – you have been arrested and taken to this prison. They’re about to put you in the Box for interrogation, the Box where they use your greatest fear against you. Quickly, don’t think about this.
What do you hope they don’t figure out? What is your deep fear?
Earlier this year Deepak Chopra spent 2 weeks as a monk in Thailand, and, every day, from 2 am until 4:30 am the monks were required to meditate on the impermanence of life and contemplate their own physical death. What he learned was that being aware of the impermanence of things helps us to value and appreciate the preciousness of the life that we do have.
Whoa. Meditating on your own physical death for 2 1/2 hours every day. This feels so contrary to conventional (Western?) wisdom, which suggests that those who routinely think about death are unhealthy.
Death is at or near the top of my list of fears. It scares me so much I avoid thinking about it as much as possible. And then, when a stray thought about death creeps into my brain, maybe after watching a scary movie or reading a book with death in it, or after a funeral or learning of a terrible accident, I feel terrified. I remember telling my parents when I was 8 or 9, “I’m scared . . . I’m so scared” – without being able to say the words “I’m scared of dying.”
Something changed, just a little, at my grandmother’s funeral. I was sad that she had died, sad that I hadn’t been able to get to know her better. But I was also amazed, surprised and, for brief periods of time, joyful. Hearing the stories about her life filled in some of the gaps for me. My grandmother lived the life she wanted to live. She was not rich. She moved to Chicago from Seoul without knowing any English. She had to rely almost entirely on the support of her children to pay the bills. And yet. She loved her church. She was a holy roller! Her faith literally healed people. She loved her plants – her African violets grew and bloomed like they had been drenched with nuclear waste and Miracle Grow simultaneously. She loved her children and grandchildren without any reservation. And she loved to pray. Even when Alzheimer’s started to cloud her brain, she always knew when it was time to pray, and she did. She had a worthy life – which made her death seem less sad and less permanent. The theme of her funeral was “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Learning about my grandmother’s life helped me start to see how to make death less fearsome. Living a good and full life – not to secure a place on the List of People allowed to go to Heaven, not to merit 10,000 virgins (good lord, how do you remember all those names?) – but just because life is precious, and when you suck all the sweet juice out of it, when you savor every drop, you’ll be too full and satisfied to be afraid when it’s time to go.
So perhaps it’s time to contemplate our fear, think about what exactly we fear, consider why it seems so scary, soak in it, let ourselves feel the fear – but then let it pass. Embrace it. Then see what happens. Maybe it won’t be so bad. I know that overcoming fear is a long journey. But we can take the first step – to name that fear and start examining it.
How about you? Do you fear anything? What is it?
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Update: p.s. – There are some great talks on Fearlessness that you can see from an independent “Ted” conference at Carnegie Mellon University (TEDxCMU), including Chris Guillebeau’s talk on Fear and Permission and Jonathan Field’s talk on Turning Fear into Fuel. Plenty of other speakers as well. Well worth a look.