Every day we experience fears: the fear of failure, of rejection, of looking stupid, the fear that our dinner will get cold . . . We have a myriad of fears. We can reduce those fears by developing the belief that whatever happens, we will handle it. ‘I can handle failure. I can handle rejection. I can handle looking stupid. I can handle my dinner getting cold.’
If you feel you can handle those things, you are not going to fear them, are you?
In her book, Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, Susan Jeffers points out that we only fear what we think we can’t handle. That means: the trick to reducing our fears is not to avoid scary situations, but to learn how to handle them.
‘Peace is not only in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. Peace is in the midst of things as they are, when there is calm in your heart. That is the real meaning of peace.’
Imagine pygmy twins: one is raised to hunt spiders, snakes and crocodiles; the other is raised to avoid those creatures. Which twin do you think will grow up competent and confident, and as a result, happier? Which twin will grow up anxious and unhappy?
I claim the twin who learns how to handle those dangers, rather than avoid them, will most likely become the happier of the two. The twin who avoids those creatures will not learn how to handle anxiety, or life itself, and as a consequence will tend to suffer anxiety and unhappiness. Again, that means the best way to feel safe is not to avoid scary situations, but to learn how to handle them. As Helen Keller says, ‘A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.’
It is often said that people in poorer countries on the whole seem happier that we westerners. It’s a bit simplistic and convenient to think that, because there are countless poor people suffering, but no doubt there are poor communities that do have happy people. In his book, ‘The Resilience Project: Finding Happiness Through Gratitude, Empathy & Mindfulness’, Hugh Van Cuylenburg explains how he was motivated to create his Resilience Project by a village of poor but happy people. He claims they have the tools we need for happiness: gratitude, empathy and mindfulness. He might be right, which prompts me to ask: why do they have those tools and we, presumably, don’t?
I suspect that people in less fortunate societies learn they can handle hardship, and as a result gain an inner confidence that they can handle life. So, when nothing bad is happening – when they’re not starving, and not diseased, and not in danger – they can rely on a confidence that we haven’t had the opportunity to gain. In our relatively safe, comfortable western society we learn (like our anxious pygmy) to fear our environment, because we don’t get the opportunity to discover we can handle life. So, it becomes easy to be anxious, even over trivial things. Then, it becomes hard to be happy, because we are not getting our evolutionary reward for ‘feeling capable’.
We could, unwittingly, be fostering unhappiness. An increasing number of children in our western society are not allowed to climb trees, or walk to school alone, or do anything that might be considered risky. So, they don’t learn how to handle situations, or to handle their fears. Instead, they learn how to avoid them, and that’s a recipe for anxiety.
We adults have rights, and insist upon them, and when they’re not met, we complain to the higher-ups and wallow in the unfairness of it all when we don’t get the outcome we want.
Further, we spend a great deal of time trying to get people to not bully or coerce, and precious little time teaching people to become resistant to bullying and coercion.
And, we spend a great deal of time vilifying the perpetrators of domestic violence and sexual harassment, and precious little time teaching people how to avoid experiencing those assaults in the first place, and precious little time teaching them how to deal with those assaults as they occur.
Counsellors, social workers and lawyers can spend plenty of time with a troubled person after the event, trying to help the person feel better. But surely prevention is better than the cure? Though if someone does make the ‘outrageous’ suggestion that we should teach people coping skills, they are accused of blaming the victim.
‘Don’t aim to have an easy life, aim to be a strong person.’
John F. Kennedy.
In short, we’re soft.
Hugh might be right with his Resilience Project. Perhaps we have become so soft and spoilt that we have lost our capacity to feel grateful, empathic and mindful of the moment. I don’t know. But this book is not about helping you deal with anxiety; it’s about helping you to not become anxious in the first place. It’s about reducing our capacity to become anxious, and satisfying our ongoing innate need to feel that whatever happens in life, we can handle it. That includes satisfying our deep need to belong.
Satisfy both needs and we have resilience.