I attended a crazy training a couple weeks ago where they put participants in high-stress situations. Knowing what this training entailed I started thinking about my worst fears and what it’d look like to face them. Many of my fears involve unfamiliar situations I'd be terrified to encounter — assault, debt, sickness. Just knowing these things can happen stresses me out.
I'm not unique in this. As a world, we have greater visibility of fear inducing events than ever before. Videos of disease, genocide, famine, and terrorist attacks are just a click away. It’s natural that we begin to fear things we see affecting others.
When I honed in on my fear, I found at the root a desire to protect my wellbeing and that of my family and friends. This isn’t a negative thing — it’s not bad to want to remain unharmed and protected. What is bad is when I confuse the prioritization of my essential needs with that of my comfort. As Americans specifically, there’s a level of entitlement that comes with the turf. If someone threatens the level of comfort we’re accustomed to, fear creeps in and we pull back.
A fear of lack, of the unknown, tells us that we should keep our resources for ourselves because they might just run out.
As Henri Nouwan writes in Reaching Out, "Creating space for the other is far from an easy task. It requires concentration and articulate work ... Indeed, more often than not rivalry and competition, desire for power and immediate results, impatience and frustration, and most of all, plain fear make their forceful demands and tend to fill every possible empty corner of our lives" (p.49-50). We view our resources — our time and material possessions — with strained eyes in order to convince ourselves there is nothing left to give.
One of the goals of the training I attended was to create muscle memory when faced with frightening situations. The first time a situation happened I froze up, others got angry, and some simply ran (fight, flight, or freeze is real people). But, the more the situation came up during the week, the more I was able respond appropriately. Practice allowed me to squash the panic and think logically about the situation.
As a people who long for security, giving up a piece of our comfort can be terrifying. But, the more we face our fears and intentionally decide to make room for others — to open ourselves up and care for their needs — the more natural it will become. As Henri Nouwan so eloquently puts it, "When we have become sensitive to the painful contours of our hostility we can start identifying the lines of its opposite towards which we are called to move: hospitality" (Reaching Out, p.48).