Car accidents aren’t usually a source of gratitude. This one was the exception. My girls and I were driving back from a friend’s house when we entered the intersection heading north. A second later, a car entered the roadway, heading west. I was surprised and with what little wits I was able to gather, turned the wheel enough that after T-boning the other vehicle, there was enough forward momentum to get the car off to the side of the road. The fact that no one in either vehicle was seriously hurt was a miracle. I couldn’t say the same for my vehicle – it was totaled. Notwithstanding our lack of injuries, the accident awakened a fear of the intersection and an anxiety towards driving in general.
As curious as it may sound, I am grateful for the fear and the accident. Fear is a protector – a negative virtue that keeps us safe from harm. It feeds off of our imagination and past experiences. In our minds, we conjure up worst-case scenarios, which our subconscious, or inner mind, take as truth. These home movies that we’ve created inside our heads becomes the fuel that fear feasts on. This alone, is a good reason to make certain that whatever we are imagining as a possible future is both realistic and likely. It’s a waste of our lives to activate protective fear over something that has virtually no chance of occurring.
Another aspect of fear that I am grateful for is that it is also a keeper of mores, which are the cultural or social values of a group. As I see it, mores have two broad categories: personal and social. The personal mores are the cultural values that a person has internalized and exhibits, no matter where they reside at a given moment. If that is an accurate statement, everyone, excepting sociopaths, have lists, for lack of a better word, of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. When we contemplate actions that will violate our mores, then fear kicks in. Our primary motivator to action on one hand, and a resistor of action on the other, seems to be emotion; fear is one of the most powerful emotions that we have at our disposal.
This highlights an important aspect of fear: it is the gatekeeper of change. Or put another way, fear must be overcome if we seek to change ourselves in some way. Most of us prefer the ruts to the untraveled paths and fear keeps us on the well-worn treads of the past. Most of our thoughts are simple repeats of our personal histories. I remember hearing that the average person has, on average, 50,000 thoughts per day and that somewhere between fifty and ninety percent of those thoughts are a repetition of thoughts we had yesterday, last week, last month, and longer. This provides stability in our lives and for those around us. Can you imagine what it would be like if everyone you knew was completely random in every area of their lives? And yet all of our improvement comes from change. At the same time, it is important to remember an old saying: “All improvement is change, but not all change is improvement.” We have to be intentional about what changes we implement.
As thankful as I am for this gatekeeper of change, sometimes it holds me back from being my best self. When this happens, I do my best to apply strategies that minimize or eliminate fear. The most basic of these strategies is visualization. As the inner mind cannot tell the difference between a vividly imagined experience and a real one, the more that I visualize with as much positive emotion as possible, the greater my ability to overwrite the fear-based experience with a positive one becomes.
Another technique, one that I learned many years ago in a book called “Unlimited Power” by Anthony Robbins, I have named the slingshot method. First, I take the memory or the image of the thing that I fear. Then I change the colors within it to black and white. Next, all the sharp edges and clear aspects of the image are turned fuzzy, something close to what a legally blind person might see from a dozen feet away. Then I put a frame around the image. After that, I shrink down the image until it is smaller than a postage stamp. Lastly, I push the image as far away from myself as possible. Once that is complete, I create the image of myself holding a slingshot with a large rock ready to fly. I pull back on the rock in its leather cradle till it is at its breaking point, then let loose. I verbally let out a breath, saying “swoosh” as the rock smashes into the distant image. I watch as the image shatters and the shards fall into nothingness. I repeat the process ten to fifteen times. This usually kills the fear tied to the memory.
That was an important key to overcoming my fear and anxiety over that car crash. I also used a second strategy from that book. I imagine the scene, let it play out, then played it backwards, as if I were watching it in reverse. Then I turn it silly – put funny hats on all involved, have cartoon-like music playing in the background, and so forth. Next I play it at double speed, and then backwards at two times speed. Four times, eight, sixteen – doubling the speed of the playback, both forwards and backwards. At the end of all of this, I play it again at normal speed and review the memory. Every time, it has lost off but the most minor of the negative feelings that were once attached to it.
I still use that intersection often, both by myself and with family. I am still a little cautious, but I feel neither fear nor anxiety as I pass through. I feel gratitude for the strategies that allow me to progress, instead of being held back. I also feel gratitude for the great benefits that fear has to offer – protection and a safeguard against activities and people that would bring me harm.