When my three daughters were very young, all the back yards in our neighborhood abutted a retention pond. The pond was home to many ducks and slithery creatures as well as an occasional heron.
One morning, I let Muffy, our sweet cockapoo, out in the back yard to pee, and went to check on the girls’ progress in getting ready for the day. I became aware of Muffy’s insistent barking and it wasn’t her typical telling-off-the-ducks barking. I walked onto the back patio and saw a water moccasin lying between the bushes, with a half-swallowed toad wedged in its mouth. I could sense its dilemma: I’m not finished with breakfast, but there is a creature yapping its head off at me, and an even bigger creature looking on. About the time I corralled Muffy, I heard a loud spitting sound. The snake had spewed out the toad and was slithering back to the pond.
I’m irrationally afraid of snakes. I don’t care whether they’re friend or foe. They’re all foe, in my mind, and one of us needs to clear out. Now. Usually me. This time, though, I had no choice but to stick around until Muffy was safely inside. I had assumed that, with three children, two adults, one dog, and one cat frequently in and out of the yard, no snake in its right mind would bother us. What had changed? As soon as I asked myself that question, I spied the answer. Recently, we had installed an electric bug zapper. All of those bug carcasses had attracted more toads, and the well-fed toads had attracted the snake. We had set up a little ecosystem in our back yard!
I finished raising my three daughters, now in their 30’s, and Muffy long ago entered Dog Heaven, but I was recently thinking about that day. The context for my musing concerned the amped-up level of fear we’ve been witnessing – in the news, on social media, at the water cooler.
It seems a generalized fear has hijacked our common sense and decreased our willingness to be civil to one another, to seek common ground.
How did we get here? And, once again, no sooner had I formulated the question than I had the answer: it’s the Ecosystem of Fear.
Sometimes fear is a healthy response, like when we’re in imminent danger. What I’m talking about, though, is perceived danger, a perceived threat to our safety or security. In my own life, when I ratchet up my mind and body to do battle with a perceived threat by hanging out the Fear Zapper, what tends to happen is, instead of resolving the emotion, I attract every “what-if” bug within a 100-mile radius. I create an Ecosystem of Fear.
My experience with this type of fear is that it’s linked to a belief that I won’t have enough or something of great value will be taken from me. I definitely hung that zapper out when faced with some serious health problems, divorce, and a protracted unemployment. And the “what-if” bugs invited toads of hand-wringing despair until all I could see was evidence of a snake-attracting cosmic conspiracy to deprive me of a joyful, meaningful life.
In the process of reclaiming joy and meaning, I developed a greater understanding of how to work through fear. The strategies I offer are an acknowledgment that learning to put fear in perspective is a process. It requires practice and patience with oneself.
- Reframe: Instead of anticipating an insufficiency or a loss, look at what you already have and how you’ve been provided for in the past. Gratitude is a powerful antidote to fear. I recommend looking in every drawer and cabinet of your home and heart, taking inventory of everything and everyone available to you. Write these down in your gratitude registry and think of them throughout the day.
- Breathe, release, repeat: In tandem with giving gratitude, I find it empowering to speak directly to the fear, telling it that you will not give its snake-attracting thought-loop power into your life. Then, breathe in, naming something from your gratitude registry, and breathe out the fear. Fill your mind and lungs with what is right with your life. Repeat.
- Practice compassion: Be kind to yourself. Engage in self-care while also committing to being charitable to those around you. Doing one unsolicited thoughtful act for someone else every day puts fear on notice, tells it you are, instead, creating an Ecosystem of Love.
We can learn to put the Fear Zapper back in the box, hold meaningful conversations, and work toward building a kinder, gentler world. Let’s dismantle the Ecosystem of Fear and co-create an Ecosystem of Love.
Deidre Ann deLaughter works in higher education at an access institution, providing oversight for students who have developmental English and/or math requirements. When she doesn’t have her educator hat on, she takes walks, does Pilates, solves word puzzles, binges on Acorn TV, reads (incessantly), writes, and nuzzles with her calico cat, Magnolia. She has three amazing daughters, all grown and flourishing as they create meaningful lives and communities.