If I were to tell you the truth—the truth that I am barely willing to allow myself to know—I am almost always afraid.
When I wake up in the middle of the night—which happens many nights—it’s because I am seized by fear. Sometimes it’s tied to a specific occurrence: atrocities in the Ukraine, an article on species loss, another US mass shooting. But the physical experience of fear never alters. It starts with a roiling in my gut, followed by an instinctual, lightning-swift turn away from the thought, then a hopeless scramble to drown the discomfort, to erase the pictures, to lock the fear in some room and throw away the key.
Don’t worry, I know the tricks. I know how to attend to my breath or repeat a short prayer mantra. These all help, and sometimes my being settles down and I can go back to sleep.
But recently, when I woke up and felt my guts gripped by the fear, some half-awake part of me decided to turn toward it. I simply experienced the feeling; I didn’t try to figure out what horror had caused it. When I actually allowed myself to feel, it dawned on me that this squeezing anxiety is an ever-present constant these days.
Let me stop here and say there’s no shame or blame in feeling afraid. We are human beings, which means that we are hardwired by the evolutionary process to scan the world for danger. Many of us find that, as we grow in awareness, we are more, rather than less, mindful of our fear. We also participate in an enormous consciousness called the planet, many of whose beings are extremely stressed. So how could we not feel fear? I, for one, am not evolved enough to bring this instinctual reaction under conscious control. But what I can do is change my response to it.
At 3 a.m. this week, it occurred to me that Love is the way I know to move beyond fear.
Love—the sensation that rises up from deep within and carries with it a palpable groundedness—helps us set aside our crippling fears and act. I capitalize Love here, because I’m not talking about attraction or family feelings or group identification. I’m talking about that inner sensation when we see suffering and respond out of compassion, regardless of how uncomfortable we are, how it might jeopardize our plans, our public image.
Love does not conquer or avoid or blast past fear. Love walks us through fear because someone or something else needs our compassion.
Every one of us who shows up for the planet, for each other, for peace and generosity and forgiveness; every person whose heart slams with terror and who speaks up anyway; every one of us is brave. This is true, too. Say it: I am a brave woman, I am a brave man, I am a brave person. Can you find these daring, joyful, truthful words when you wake up in the middle of the night?