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21 January 2006

Teach fear to heel

“We invent what we love, and what we fear.” – John Irving

Princess_ashley_1A student of mine was murdered this week, on Wednesday.

No, she was actually assassinated as she prayed at a Buddhist monastery in northern Thailand. The reports are that masked gunmen in black leapt from a van and shot her in the neck, then turned to shoot her husband. Thai police have said they believe the couple was targeted for assassination by the Laotian government under a belief they were working against the communist regime in neighboring Laos.

I had met at lunch the day before with another professor to finalize plans for this student's independent study on global leadership this semester. Thankfully, my colleague called the next morning to tell me of her death so I wouldn’t have to hear it first on the news.

A descendant of Laotian royalty, Princess Oulayvanh Sethathirath was working to help Laotians in Thailand get a good education, to ensure that her culture did not die there—she was also getting her own education in leadership at a U.S. university so she would be prepared for the task when she went home to assume her role. She and her husband, Prince Anouvong Sethathirath IV were both assassinated. Their young sons are now orphans, their lives not what they should have been, this evil an aching gap the center around which they will now turn.

A course in global leadership with its nice, neat reading list stands undone and irrelevant in such a world where change is so feared it leads to murder. Chillingly, the syllabus was prefaced with this quote from Machiavelli: “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in introducing a new order of things.” As it turns out, this student was actually teaching me about leadership, not the other way around. It is one thing to read (or write) about leadership; it is another to be a leader. How pristine and neat and sometimes irrelevant is book learning; how messy is real life.  How often we confuse the teacher and the learner.

Mlk_collageI’m reminded of these words by Martin Luther King, Jr (with many thanks to mytopography for use of her moving MLK collage):

“If you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren't fit to live. You may be thirty-eight years old, as I happen to be, and one day some great principle, some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great issue, some great cause. And you refused to do it because you want to live longer. You're afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you're afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house.

So you refuse to take the stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are ninety, but you are just as dead at thirty-eight as you would be at ninety. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announced of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right.”

Princess Oulayvanh Sethathirath was thirty-eight years old.

What do I believe in so deeply that I would die for it? What fear keeps me from standing up—is it fear of what people will say? Is it fear of not having enough money? Is it fear of looking foolish or that people won’t like me? Is it a fear of being successful?

I used to believe that the most powerful human emotion was regret—that regret more than anything else would eat your insides out—I should have, I should have, I didn’t. (Given my focus on regret, imagine my regret when the book, Regret, came out and I hadn’t written it. How ironic!)

Road_not_takenNow I know I was wrong. Regret is still a biggie, a deal breaker—it’s difficult to get past kicking oneself in the pants over what you didn’t do or did do, but now I know that the back of the monster on which regret sits—and on which mediocrity and overeating and procrastination and prejudice and jealousy and many other happy creatures sit—the back of the monster that holds all those up and feeds them is Fear.

Fear is a reductive force in the universe; it makes people small. It reduces your voice, your way of being in the world, your humanity, the reach of your arms out to others—everything about you shrinks, becomes small, closes in on itself, like visiting a foreign country and not being able to read any of the signs and becoming someone smaller than you really are, not laughing your big laugh because you don’t know, not going to the bathroom because it’s unclear which one wears the skirt. For every lack, there is a fear behind it: It is fear of success that feeds procrastination, for example. Fear is the All-You-Can-Eat-Buffet-of-Life. Insert your own food-related metaphor here.

When my older daughter, Emma, was younger, we moved from inside the city to the suburbs of Washington, DC, for a short, failed experiment in suburban living. I thought she needed a yard to play in; ironically we killed the grass within a month of moving in, not being the yard type. There was a forest behind our house (actually, a line of trees that seemed a huge forest to her) and one night, Emma told me she was afraid of bears coming out of the forest to get her at night. We had a nice long talk about irrational fears.

SpiralMonths later at the Smithsonian Institution, we went to see a gorgeous Chinese calligraphy show. As we descended down a spiral staircase, there was a tall sculpture several stories high hanging from the ceiling around which the stairs circled. “See, Mama,” Emma whispered to me, pointing to the hanging sculpture, “there.” “There?” I asked. “Yes, there’s one of my erasable fears. I’m afraid things like that will fall.”

[And from that one moment in time came an important concept: “erasable fears.”]

“What?” I asked, not realizing what she meant. “You know—you know,” she urged. “It’s an erasable fear like when I was afraid of the bears coming into my bedroom.”

Fears. Are they irrational or are they erasable? Are they serving us in some way?

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Unlike Martin Luther King or Princess Oulayvanh Sethathirath, you may not literally ever have to die for what you stand for and believe in—but I think naming that principle, belief, person you would die for is to put a stake in the ground and say “here is my grounding, my bedrock, my all.”

Don’t we die a little everyday if we don’t walk toward that fear that holds up back, reduces us, makes us less than what we really are?

Stand up and walk toward your fear. Expand into it, embrace it, own it and name it, make it your pet, take it on walks, feed it, groom it, train it to heel, learn to love its mongrel face. That’s the only way you’ll stop it from yipping all day and night, and nipping at your toes. It’s the only way you can take your daily walks in the world without being dragged along by a wild, untamed fear.

Read this book: Art and Fear.

And don’t live to be ninety just to be breathing.


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Patti, this leaves me numb, speechless...

Wow! That's all I can think right now. Wow!

I believe you are right about fear being the strongest, most negative and probably the most destructive emotion. Fear running amuck causes hate and violence and betrayal of values. Often we project that fear onto someone else so we can more easily turn it into a comfortable "it's their fault" and I hate them for it. I believe the antidote to fear is love. The better solution is the one you propose; face down your own demons, own your fear. As scary as it is, turn the light on and get to know that monster under your bed. Then the fear no longer controls you. As Socrates said: "Know thyself". Make peace with yourself, warts and all. When we know and love ourselves, it's hard to betray anyone out of fear gone amuck. Personally, I'm still working on it, but I do belive that love is the key.

As dark, ominous and negative it may be, Fear is an extremely powerful emotion. So much so, that, if not overcome, this one emotion can rip to shreds all the 'good' emotions that we would wish to live by.

Reminds me of Spencer Johnson' simple, yet powerful, bestseller 'Who moved my Cheese?, wherein he states through the words of one of the charachters - 'Haw' - who is exploring and overcoming his 'fear' of change in his life and/or situation - our cocooning surroundings:

.....that what you are afraid of is never as bad as what you imagine. The fear you let build up in your mind is worse than the situation that actually exists.....

I admire your eloquence in writing and the manner in which you put your thoughts on paper, so to speak.

Thank you.

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the ability to push back despite the fear. Thank you for your encouragement. I love your writing style!

Another strong post with a very tough start. My thoughts go out to you with the loss of your student and her learning and the difference she would have made in the world.

One person told me fear = excitement without oxygen. So I hope I am still breathing later in life but breathing into my fears and keeping the excitement alive.

Love may be one of my erasers and I love the term erasable fears.


Another impressive and power-full edition of 37 Days. First I would like to offer my sincere sympathy for the loss of your student.

As I read this week's post I am reminded that we all lose every time fear silences true leaders and great thinkers. Whether they are silenced by death, as with your student and her husband, or live silently in life, as with each person who lives oppressed through their own personal bondage to fear or by the bondage impressed upon them by others' fears.

Thus, I am prompted to ask myself not only how I can identify and 'erase' my own fears, yet also, how can I foster 'fear free' environments within my own circle of influence to facilitate others erasing their fears? What can I do to create an atmosphere for those around me to feel free to be audacious, undaunted, and authentic? What would that look like? And what if each of us worked to build these 'fear free zones'? What would be the impact to our personal communities and our community at large? And conversely, what is the impact if we don't work to do this? What are we all missing out on as a result?

Thank you for once again giving me perspective and another point to ponder and incorporate into my daily life.

My sympathies in the loss of your student.

One must press outwards or we else we can crush ourselves inwards.


This post really moved me. I consider it my attitude check of the day. We get so caught up in our daily ego struggles, fearing such underwhelming things. Your student has taught me something! I'm praying for her family.

thank you for sharing your thoughts on fear and the questions that come with it. i really appreciated the MLK really got me thinking. i've been wondering about this topic of fear and anger lately, and your post has helped me to move along in my understanding of it. thanks :)

Your image of fear being a dog that we need groom and walk is so powerful. I thought of my sorrow in the same way, sort of. I envisioned my sorrow like some starving needy homeless girl. I want to turn away. I want to throw things like food and distractions at her to make her go away. But she doesn't go. I realized that I need to acknowlege her. Listen to her.
So it is with my dog Fear. Your post on the waterfall house reminded me of how much I tailor my life for the aproval of others out of- bark bark- Fear. I am getting too old for this. I am almost 29. One day I'll be dead and the only person that needs to like my life is me. (When I'm dead I doubt I'll care what others think.) Then again, nobody is really that invested in what I chose to do or not do.

I'm so very sorry for the loss of your student. I imagine she would be deeply touched at what her death has inspired you to share here. I've thought a lot about MLK lately, not just because of the day off I had from work...but because I attended a moving tribute to him in Portland during their celebration that day...watched a documentary of his work on PBS...helped the kids at the jr. high where i work to portray a scene from his life in their assembly. And I've wondered the same: what would I be willing to give my life for? My mate? The children in my life? My family? My beliefs? The fight against injustice and racism? It's a potent and challenging question. This is the second blog I visited today that recommended "Art and Fear"...looks like I need to head to the bookstore tomorrow... Beautiful post.

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