About a year ago, I started a masters course in Artificial Intelligence. I had no formal computer science experience, a Politics degree and was sort of surprised that I had been accepted. I had taught myself most of the basic maths and programming which was necessary to get on the course, but I didn’t have any real proof of my ability. Yet I wasn’t afraid of potentially being out of my depth, in fact I was rather excited. I had spent the summer, when society opened up at the end of Covid, trying all kinds of new things and growing in confidence. Sometimes, I’d go radically outside my comfort zone and surprise myself with what I could do: like when I gathered a group of mates to go on an impromptu mountain hike after a couple of pints down the pub, or when I started trying out gymnastics, as an adult, for fun. Sometimes, my ambition tipped into hubris, like I couldn’t find anyone to take to this music festival I wanted to go to, so I went alone. I made something of a raving crew on the Saturday afternoon, but lost them in the crowd and spent the rest of the weekend trying to find them. I didn’t regret doing it, but I must admit it wasn’t all that fun.
The key is, I had sort of dealt with every fear, anxiety or general sense of unease that would have stopped most people from doing any of these things, alone with my journal under lockdown, and was for the first time in my life truly fearless. Although I was 22, I felt 18 again and was ready to start anew at university. Sure enough, I did well on my new path. I was routinely near the top of the class and often finished coursework weeks in advance. Academically I was pushing ahead, and socially I was buzzing. I was a regular with the yoga, Taekwondo and gymnastics societies, I had made good friends and was partying like an undergrad. more importantly, I had met my girlfriend, who I have been with happily ever since. I had in some way, hacked life, found the answer, overcome the traumas and trials of the past and become utterly invincible.
And yet, as time went on a weird uneasiness emerged. I didn’t know what to do with all of this newfound personal, social, academic, and sporting capital. Insecurity, fits of anger and irritability started to creep in. Old memories of unpleasant moments started to creep back in, flashes of adverse childhood experiences I thought I had come to terms with came back, a worry that I had built a house of cards started to become inescapable. I soldiered on, believing such things would pass but they didn’t. What I could not countenance was that fearlessness is not an eternal state. One cannot be free of all fears, only the fears which currently affect you, if your circumstances change then so too are the things to be worried about.
The trouble is, that when you become fearless you become capable of changing things and so naturally the things which scare you change too. When I was single I was worried that I would always be single, or that I would never find ‘the one’. Now that I have a relationship, I worry about losing her, and thus worrying that I’d never find someone as good as her. These fears are natural products of the changing of circumstances. As we overcome fears we take on new stories about ourselves, we push in new directions and end up in places we don’t expect. Then, having found ourself in this new, perhaps alien place, we panic and have new things to worry about and the answers we found for our old fears are no longer satisfying. We then face a choice, accept that we are not invincible, that to return to that position of strength we must repeat the same, perhaps painful process of overcoming, or we close up and delude ourselves into thinking that everything is fine. For a while I did the latter, until I realised it was a dead end, and now, I think, there is no path but the former.
Fear is not something to be scorned, it is not something to be shoved aside and hidden, it is a part of your brain and more so a part of your body. It is your body’s warning system telling you that you are in uncharted territory. One can accept this fear as immutable and become anxious, ignore fears and spiral into insecurity or, more healthily, one can confront fear. One can look each fear in the eye and first try to find where it comes from and then find an answer to it which is acceptable. You should find an answer which ought to be acceptable to your emotional needs, moral character, external obligations and vocation. For example, the proper response to the fact that your partner is a free agent that could leave you is not to be clingy or to push them away, but to seek their self actualisation, whether they are with you or without you. You need to see that the fact that they are free and yet they choose to stick with you is a blessing which is, among other things, a pretty good indication of your good character. Be their advocate and let them grow. They won’t grow out of you, in fact they will probably be drawn ever closer, by the trust you have built.
Contrary to the Bene Gesserit of Dune “I must fear”, for without fear I would apply the same old solutions and strategies to new situations, trying to use a spanner to bake a cake, going mad trying to understand why I can’t whip the batter. There is no way to remain strong, enterprising and forward thinking without first dealing with fear, not vanquishing it, dealing with it. For it is a deal, reached through negotiation, perhaps brokered by a therapist. Does your response to fear satisfy your emotional needs? If you were the parent to your inner child, would they be calmed by your answer to fear, would they relax, curl up in your arms and fall gently to sleep. If not, then ask yourself if your answer is really in the pursuit of happiness. Is it moral? Would the moral voice in your head, that gives you guilt and pride be convinced by it. If not, then ask why your conscience is weighing so heavily. Does it affect your responsibilities? Who is effected by your new decisions, what do they need, will you be able to support them? If not, it is good to wonder if your answer is perhaps a little selfish. How does it affect your sense of purpose, your vocation? What good is it to be superficially happy and moral if underneath that you worry that your efforts are meaningless? If your answers to fear fill you only with ennui, then ask if you are allowing yourself the room to discover what truly matters to you…
Perhaps at a given time, you cannot satisfactorily answer all of your fears, the burdens of your situation may be such that some things cannot be confronted just yet but you should, if you have the courage, try to at least deal with one of them at a time. Once you deal with one such fear, you may be able to change things enough that you can deal with another, and another and so on… New fears may crop up in face of the old, the eternal game continues anew, but at least you will keep moving, at least you are still discovering, finding in the limited ways open to you a new path. Your outer situation will also be changing too, as will your practical sense of what works and what doesn’t. One day, you may have the free movement again, to free yourself of all present fears and live with the adventurous spirit of a well raised child: trying new things, finding new ways, always learning and growing.
It is not like we reach a certain age and lose the ability to think differently. Our capacity to change does indeed slows as we age, in part due to the structural changes in our brain as it loses its plasticity and in part due to the simple fact that we have less time but it never truly stops. We can pretend to be fearless and get stuck in our ways, but what would we be then but bitter old people. No, insofar as is possible, we must keep the wheel turning, acting with an affirmative ethic, learning and evolving. All this so that we can remain as free as we can from the burdens of fear while accepting that our freedom brings with it new things to be afraid of. I still have fears, because to be free involves discovering new things to be afraid of.
P.S. If I were a reverend mother of an order of space witches, then I would instruct my sisters to embrace the following:
I must fear, Fear is the mind-changer, Fear is the little warning that brings a change in direction.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me and when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone, there will be something.
On that new path I will remain.
P.P.S. I am not a therapist, or a reverend mother. If you have anxiety issues, see a professional. I am simply sharing my own experiences, and my experience may be different to yours.