The Places that Scare You

The American Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön has written a book called The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. I haven’t read it yet, although I like her work and so I hope to one of these days; but I’m mentioning it because the title alone is, for me, provocative. Sooner or later meditation or contemplation alone will take us to the places that scare us. Indeed, life will take us to the places that scare us. We lose a job, a relationship, a valued possession, our health. Worse than our own suffering is the suffering of those we love. And when loved ones die, or leave in any other way, a huge hole can emerge in our lives that seemingly nothing will fill. The Buddha very rightly noted in the first of his Four Noble Truths that suffering happens. Birth, aging, illness, death, clinging, separation, and other aspects of life all bring us to suffering. And no one likes to suffer, and so the places that scare us (or perhaps I should say, the places that scare me) are those places where suffering will possibly or probably or most certainly will come to me.

Since both Benedictine and Celtic spirituality are all about hospitality, I suppose the obvious question here is, how do we offer hospitality to our suffering, and to the places that scare us? I’m not sure I buy into Chödrön’s subtitle: is “fearlessness” really on the menu? Granted, Jesus told us to be not afraid; he also told us to be perfect (in that context he was talking specifically about loving those who do evil). I’m currently reading The Teaching of the 12, Tony Jones’ commentary on the Didache, and he sees in that ancient manuscript this kind of Gospel-inspired commitment to loving acceptance of even those persons we are tempted to hold in judgment. The Gospel is all about busting through judgment and judgmentalism and embracing radically those even whose actions or behaviors we find scandalous. I don’t know about you, but I’m not there yet. Just like I’m not to fearlessness yet. It seems to me that before we can be fearless or perfect in our love, we have to grow into it. And moving into the places that scare us, and accepting the fact that we are very much afraid, and by the grace of God, doing it anyway, is an important first step. Again by the grace of God, the fearlessness will come, later. But if we wait for fearlessness before we go to the places that scare us, we will probably just wind up immobilized.

I’ve been thinking about all this a lot lately, not only because I’m playing with the question of “tame spirituality” vis-a-vis “wild spirituality,” but also because I’m having a hard time settling on what my next book project should be. Basically, I have three options: should I explore mysticism again, or should I turn my focus back to something more Celtic, or should I write about my transition from Paganism to Catholicism? Guess which of the three scares me the most (simply because it is the closest to my own heart)? Why, though, should my own story scare me? Because of all the pitfalls I see along the way. I’m afraid that I will share too much of my own shadow, or that I will project too much of my own shadow onto either Paganism or Catholicism. I’m afraid that, in an effort to avoid the pitfall of projection, that I will retreat from being honest in talking about my experiences both as a Pagan or as a Catholic. In other words, to write my story, I must be fearlessly honest about myself, but also about all my experience, both in Pagan or in Christian circles. Such fearless confessional writing is different from the rather journalistic task of celebrating mysticism. And I fear that I am not strong enough or good enough to rise to the challenge that such a task presents to me.

Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, says Susan Jeffers. And I agree with her. Sit in the middle of the fear, and breathe through it. We know we are alive when we go into the places that scare us, not to prove how macho we are, but simply to practice that hospitality that can give birth to true fearlessness. But knowing all this doesn’t make it any less scary going in. There’s another book out there that I’ve never read; it’s called The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear. I don’t know about other writers, but I deal with fear as a writer by bludgeoning my way through it. “Transcending” fear is a fine art that I have yet to master.

Maybe the reason why this blog strikes at least one reader as tame is because I’ve been shying away from the stuff that scares me. I suppose now that this is on my radar screen I need to do something about it. And I will, as soon as my hands stop shaking. :-)

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  1. I let anger overwhelm my fear of going in and so now I have lost an opportunity. How saddening that is.

    I recommend The Courage to Write. It’s one of those books that I have read about three times and I can’t really tell you what it’s about – some books you read sink so deep that conscious recollection of them is hard. Weird :)

    Great post, Carl. May you go with the book idea that is ringing for you most, regardless of the fears.

  2. FDR got it right in his first inaugural address.

  3. The spiritual author Robert Augustus Masters recently wrote on Twitter: “Get intimate with your pain. Instead of rising above it, move through it, even if you’re on your hands and knees.”
    A lot of spirituality seems to try to go the vertical way too soon. It’s all about transcendence, emotions are described as an illusion or as kind of a hindrance.

    As you put so well, it is not that easy to be there at the place of loving acceptance. It may well be necessary to judge or even to hate before we become able to love and forgive. If we try to love and forgive too soon, it becomes just another spiritual bypass.

    Moving through difficult emotions – the stuff that scares us the most – is a process that takes courage, endurance and more time than we might like to spend on it. Most of the time, I like to run away. But it seems that on those rare occasions that I do not, when I actually try to meet what scares me, it is one small step towards freedom. And it’s also heart-opening. So it’s worth changing our habit of running away in the opposite direction and closing our heart. I guess meeting our pain and fear can also be a step towards God.

  4. I wonder if fearlessness is the peace that passes understanding? I think it may be. It’s that point of surrender – not of resignation, for that smacks somehow of forced acceptance – when we finally relax into our Father’s arms at the foot of the cross and agree to be carried through the dark and the storm, believing that all is well not because all IS well, but because we’re in God’s arms.

    2009 has been the herald of tremendous loss for this family: our jobs, our home through foreclosure, our savings through the economic crash. It’s been a tremendous struggle full of fear, anger, grief and anxiety. Add 3 young adults all on the scary brink of independence and accountability to the mix and one understands the need for two tubes of medium brown hair color!

    We had no choice about this scary place. It just came and all we could do was all we could do, which is just what we have done. It wasn’t enough as it turns out, at least towards saving or preserving our lifestyle, corresponding identity, and possessions. The only choice we ever really had was how to respond: with courage and faith or with anger and bitterness. Isn’t that really the only choice we ever have? Turn to Jesus or turn away?

    The dark has turned out to be a very scary but very enlightened place. It has revealed in our fears all the things we loved more than God, all those idols that I’ve prayed daily the Lord would remove. Well, remove them He has and words can never tell how grateful I am for the dark, my powerlessness, and all this loss. As Paul said, it’s all really been gain and the fear is gone as I kneel at the cross.

  5. Like the robbed man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho who received a Samaritan’s care, I suffer 1/2 dead, 1/2 missing, looking to myself, away from Jesus, this darkness is immense. Looking to Jesus, sitting at his feet, seeing God, I am enthused, God breathes into me and I can be here, sharing my heart, soul, strength, mind, loving God and my neighbor.
    Mysterium tremendum et fascinosum ( I don’t know if I am spelling the latin correctly) I understand to mean God is a mystery frightfully tremendous yet fascinating to the point of a curiosity impelling me to come to him, and in doing so, be with God and as Christ tells us, he is then in us as we are in him. Then all we see and face is not God and is not to be feared, not because it is not scary so much as because as many of you said, God is with us.
    Thanks also for the additions to the book list, and Leslie, for the courageously honest window into your life.

  6. Thank you Ken for your comments. I am so in this space now of purging long-held-but-not-passed-through emotions. It has been an ongoing process over the past few years and frankly, I am really tired of it. It hurts. And yet passing through out the other side – it’s true, it does bring freedom. I really appreciate what you say about us desiring to go vertical too soon. The things learnt in this place are invaluable (one of the most valuable at the moment being that I am not the emotion I am experiencing. To stand that little bit detached from it and say “I am not grief. I am just feeling grief” is a totally different situation and gives me comfort, makes me understand a little bit more about endurance, about being able to withstand many things.

  7. I found Pema Chodrön’s book to be a great book. It teaches me to welcome those feelings that until then were not welcome, hence often suppressed, bounced back onto others, etc.

    Nice to find your website.

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