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  • The Lighthouse of Fear

    This series is inspired by the many people I’ve met or witnessed who are imprisoned by their fears around COVID-19. While fear is a part of being alive, it doesn’t have to be the dominant experience of our lives and the world around us. We are innately resilient and resourceful creatures, and a better understanding of the workings of fear, can open us to living from a place of wellbeing–which is always present and awaiting our return.

    She was fifty feet down the hill, frozen in her tracks, staring up at me as if I were a COVID-19 zombie come to life on the dirt fire-road we presently shared.

    I was returning from an early Easter morning hike along a ridge above my house. A heavy morning mist still clung to the Marin hilltops, and the shoulders of the road were bright with clutches of wild purple iris in full bloom. It seemed like a perfect morning to be celebrating the day of resurrection and rebirth. The woman I was approaching, however, was clutching a N-95 mask to her face, eyes wide and fixed on me. I knew the look.

    Three weeks earlier, when it was rapidly becoming apparent that a new kind of natural disaster was about to engulf California and the rest of the world, I had my own encounter with terror.

    It was mid-afternoon and I was in my home office working on a blog post. Though I usually read the news later in the day, I had been glancing at the increasingly dark headlines of the viral and economic carnage that were marching my way.

    Suddenly I found myself on my feet, grabbing my keys and wallet. Taking shape in my mind’s eye was an imminent famine, a living nightmare for a foodie such as myself. There was no time to waste; I would drive to Costco before the lines got too long and buy as much frozen meat and vegetables as our refrigerator’s large and half-empty freezer would hold.

    I was getting into my car when I realized what was happening to me. Snared in a web of fearful thoughts, I was letting it tell me what to do. With that flash of awareness also came the knowledge that fear is a poor guide for action, particularly when responding to new or unfamiliar threats. This was my first experience of a global pandemic.

    Back in my office, I now noticed the tightness in my jaw, a heightened vigilance and awareness of my surroundings, and my narrowed field of vision, which seemed to consistently land on things that increased my fear.

    Our modest condo now looked woefully ill-prepared for a pandemic siege. The kitchen’s comfortable 2-3 day supply of essential groceries was but a brief prelude to daily foraging trips in the meadows and parklands around my home. Maybe I should buy an extra fuel tank for the portable generator in the garage?

    But I did nothing.

    I knew that fear not only heightened my senses, but the feelings which accompany its awakening can also distort my thinking, my five senses, my ability to reason. My awareness allowed me to see clearly that there was no immediate threat to my health and safety. There was enough time to wait it out, and I knew that when I did, objectivity and common sense would resurface to guide me.

    I continued with my work, ignoring as best I could the rumbling thunderheads of fear-infused thoughts and images in the back of my mind. Indeed, storm-clouds seemed to fill the air, which brought to mind a plane ride through a storm in Arkansas years earlier, white-knuckled and peering out the window, praying for clear skies.

    The thing about storms and bad weather is we generally can’t tell how long they will last by examining the swirling clouds around us. What we know, however, is that behind every cloud and every storm there is always a wide open blue sky. Even hurricanes eventually pass.

    That evening, as I was grilling some sausages and veggies for dinner, blue skies returned. I felt myself relax into my body, my peripheral vision widened to normal, and the world became a place of facts and possibilities once more. As the skies cleared, so did my mind, bringing the welcome return of my higher brain functions.

    My home was once again my little castle: safe, comfortable, and reasonably well equipped for several months of locked-down living.

    Kathy and I sat at the kitchen table and reviewed the information we’d gathered from trusted news sources that day. It was now clear that grocery stores weren’t going to run out of food anytime soon. But given how humans ordinarily respond to fear, the bigger threat we might face if panic-driven hoarding continued, was continued spot shortages in the supply chain.

    The next morning, I drove to Costco and bought a modest stock of food and other supplies. Since then, Kathy and I have been living the locked-down life mostly from a place of wellbeing. While I’ve had additional episodes of fear and have seen other storms gathering on the horizon, they all quickly passed.

    What can my story teach us about the nature of our shared experience, about fear and our capacity for wellbeing, irregardless of circumstance? How did my understanding of the experience of being frightened differ from the terrified woman I encountered on Easter morning?

    I didn’t speak with the woman and have no idea what she was thinking, but I am 90% certain she misunderstood what her fear was telling her—that she believed her thoughts and feelings were giving her reliable information which would lead her to safety. She innocently believed that something about me (or something about that stretch of road) was frightening her. I knew that was not possible; her experience could only be coming from within her.

    The fear she was feeling was only telling her about the contents of her thinking in that moment. Her misunderstanding of those feelings kept her imprisoned in fear.

    Fear is like a lighthouse, alerting us to danger. But it’s not telling us anything about the nature of the danger, or how to get our ship safely to shore. Until we understand how the lighthouse works, we’re at risk for running our ship aground.

    The lighthouse is a three-part metaphor. First, there’s the flash of light which wakes us up. Then there’s the beam of light it casts on us, which fills us with fear until the light turns off. Finally, there is our understanding of what the light is telling us about how to deal with the situation we’re facing.

    When the light of fear goes off in the brain, its intensity is irresistible and compelling. It’s like a flashbulb going off in your face: it gets your immediate attention. Fear’s flash alerts you to some sense or perception of an imminent threat and danger. It’s part of our design, an evolutionary feature to help us survive through the millenia.

    Whatever turns on the light, it’s the amygdala’s job to ready you to take action. Your pupils and bronchi dilate, heart rate and blood pressure rise, your field of vision narrows, leaving you in full-blown fight-flight-freeze mode.

    Fear is not telling us anything about the nature of the danger, or how to get our ship safely to shore.

    One small problem with that light. It cannot discriminate between real and imagined threats, danger that passed long ago and live only in memory, or the threat of future failure at some endeavor we take on. It could be a snake crossing your path, a lurking figure outside your front door, or a swarm of COVID-19 virus on a fire road and a famine lurching towards your home.

    Another problem with being afraid is that the fear distorts what we’re seeing, what we’re thinking, our ability to objectively assess the situation, and how to make strong and appropriate choices. Yet most of us take what we’re feeling as a reliable guide to what is happening, and we base our assessments of eventual action on possibly distorted information.

    In Part 2 and 3 of “The Lighthouse of Fear” we will continue to explore the workings of fear, the thought-feeling-thought connection which powers it, and the inside-out paradigm of experience. How does it work? How can it help us understand and manage our fears, indeed all the emotions we struggle with. How can this understanding help us make more grounded decisions and take effective and appropriate action?