Can I Be Fearless?

by Alexis Schroeder September 21, 2008

By Margaret Wheatley, 2008

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Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions. —Hafiz

Human history is filled with stories of countless people who have been fearless. If we look at our own families, perhaps going back several generations, we’ll find among our own ancestors those who also have been fearless. They may have been immigrants who bravely left the safety of home, veterans who courageously fought in wars, families who endured economic hardships, war, persecution, slavery, oppression, dislocation. We all carry within us this lineage of fearlessness.

But what is fearlessness? It’s not being free of fear, for fear is part of our human journey. Parker Palmer, an extraordinary educator and writer, notes:

“Fear is so fundamental to the human condition that all the great spiritual traditions originate in an effort to overcome its effects on our lives. With different words, they all proclaim the same core message: “Be not afraid.” . . . . It is important to note with care what that core teaching does and does not say. “Be not afraid” does not say that we should not have fears—and if it did, we could dismiss it as an impossible counsel of perfection. Instead, it says that we do not need to be our fears, quite a different proposition.”

If fear is this fundamental to being human, we can expect that we’ll feel afraid at times, perhaps even frequently. Yet when fear appears, we don’t have to worry that we’ve failed, that we’re not as good as other people. In fact, we’re just like other people! What’s important is to notice what we do with our fear. We can withdraw or distract or numb ourselves. Or we can recognize the fear, and then step forward anyway. Fearlessness simply means that we do not give fear the power to silence or stop us.

In my own experience, I think there’s an important difference between courage and fearlessness. Courage emerges in the moment, without time for thought. Our heart opens and we immediately move into action. Someone jumps into an icy lake to save a child, or speaks up at a meeting, or puts them self in danger to help another human being. These sudden actions, even if they put us at risk, arise from clear, spontaneous love.

Fearlessness, too, has love at its core, but it requires much more of us than instant action. If we react too quickly when we feel afraid, we either flee or act aggressively. True fearlessness is wise action, not false bravado or blind reactivity. It requires that we take time and exercise discernment. Zen teacher Joan Halifax speaks about the “practice of non-denial.” When we feel afraid, we don’t deny the fear. Instead, we acknowledge that we’re scared. But we don’t flee. We stay where we are and bravely encounter our fear. We turn toward it, we become curious about it, its causes, its dimensions. We keep moving closer, until we’re in relationship with it. And then, fear changes. Most often, it disappears.

I’ve heard many quotes from different traditions that speak to this wonder of fear dissolving. “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” “The only way out is through.” “Put your head in the mouth of the demon, and the demon disappears.”

Some of my best teachers about fearlessness are part of a global network of younger leaders (in their teens, twenties and thirties) with whom I’ve worked for several years. They call themselves “Walk-outs.” They walk out of work and careers that prevent them from contributing as much as they can, they walk out of relationships where they don’t feel respected, they walk out of ideas that are limiting, they walk out of institutions that make them feel small and worthless. But they don’t walk out to disappear–they walk out to walk on. They walk on to places where they can make a real contribution, to relationships where they’re respected, to ideas that call on their strengths, to work where they can discover and use their potential.

From these younger leaders, I’ve learned the importance of asking periodically, “What might I need to walk out of?” It’s a big question and it demands a lot of bravery to even ask it. By posing this question, we’re being brave enough to notice our fears and see them clearly. We’re being brave enough to recognize where we’re called to be fearless in our own lives. This powerful question helps us discover the places, the work, and the relationships that we need to walk on to in order to realize and offer our gifts.

I hold a vision of what’s possible if more of us are willing to practice non-denial, if we look clearly at what frightens us in our personal lives and in our society. With clearer vision, we could walk through our fear and say “no” to what disturbs us. We could walk on and take a stand. We could refuse to be cowed or silenced. We could stop waiting for approval or support. We could stop feeling tired and overwhelmed. We could trust the energy of ‘Yes!’ and begin to act for what we care about.