The Basic Fear that Dominates Your Life Far More Than You Realize

The Basic Fear that Dominates Your Life Far More Than You Realize April 8, 2014

“There has to be a real fear by which one orients his life. What you fear is an indication of what you seek. What do I fear most? Forgetting and ignorance of the inmost truth of my being. To forget who I am, to be lost in what I am not, to fail my own inner truth, to get carried away in what is not true to me, what is outside me, what imposes itself on me from outside…the ignorance that comes from the decision to regard my ego as my full, complete, real self, and to work to maintain this illusion against the call of secret truth that rises up within me, that is evoked within me by others, by love, by vocation, by providence, by suffering, by God. The ignorance that hardens the shell, that makes the inner core of selfhood determined to resist the call of truth that would dissolve it. The ignorance that hardens in desire and willfulness, or in conformity, or in hate, or in various refusals of people, various determinations to be “right at any price.”

                                                     — Thomas Merton, (Journals: June 22,1966, V1.332)


Merton claimed, rightly I believe, that every person has a basic fear around which they orient their lives; the fear of being worthless, unprotected, useless, corrupted, overwhelmed, deprived, violated, uncomfortable, or defective. Our basic fear formed in us when we were very young as a natural response to the vulnerability involved in human agency. This fear became integral to our emotional development, and eventually our personality; a part of human existence we considered to be inescapable—a given. Over time it becomes so enmeshed in our worldview that we cannot typically see the profound role our basic fear plays in our lives. Thus we are, for the most part, blind to it, even though it has a profound impact on nearly everything we do.

Very early on, we begin to organize our lives as a defense against our basic fear. We develop a corresponding desire—an emotional and psychological need—that goes hand in hand with our basic fear. This desire becomes dominant for us, and an equally powerful part of our emotional life and personality. Merton says, “What you fear is an indication of what you seek.” This simply means our basic fear is paired with a corresponding and equally basic desire meant to address our fear. We spend much of our lives seeking the fulfillment of that desire. Everyone has a basic fear and a corresponding desire, even people who are not overly fearful. My basic fear is of being worthless. So my corresponding desire is to be valuable, to be worthy.

We then begin to develop our own program or strategy, meant to help us mitigate our basic fear and fulfill the corresponding desire. These are what Fr. Thomas Keating calls emotional programs for happiness. These emotional programs are a way of achieving some sense of distance from our basic fears and experiencing as much of a sense of fulfillment of our basic desire as we can. The problem with these programs is that they are fantastic—not based in reality. These emotional programs for happiness are what we often call the human ego, the false-self, or the small-self.

Here’s how it works: My basic fear is of being worthless, and my basic desire is to be valuable or worthy. So my emotional program for happiness—my strategy through which I try to mitigate the fear and realize the desire—is achievement. I perform. At its best this looks like an industrious, hardworking, achiever who contributes something positive to the world. At its worst this looks like narcissism or status seeking.


There is no access to wisdom for the person who has not come to a deep understanding of the basic fear that drives our life, the basic desire around which our lives become oriented, and the strategy, or personality, or ego, or false-self through which we attempt to address them both.


Knowing our basic fear, desire, as well as our program for happiness (or our ego-drive false-self), is of inestimable value. It is an essential aspect of emotional and spiritual maturity. There is no access to wisdom for the person who has not come to a deep understanding of the basic fear that drives our life, the basic desire around which our lives become oriented, and the strategy, or personality, or ego, or false-self through which we attempt to address them both.

So… once we can see them, understand them, and own them, what do we do to get past them? Nothing. We do nothing. Our basic fears are an illusion, a lie we have believed about the world, about ourselves, and even about God. The fear is fantastic as well. The only thing we need to do is SEE the fear, own it, name the desires, and our ego-driven small-self. Once we learn to see them, we see them everywhere and often. We can’t “not” see them. And over time they begin to lose their grip upon our lives.

Fear is like bacteria. It grows well in the deep dark places that we hide. But when it is exposed to the light, it dies off. The Christian scriptures teach that “perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) When we expose our fears/desires/egos to the light they begin to shrink away. They leave behind a void that is instantly filled with the love of God. I don’t mean our love for God, I mean the sense that we are deeply loved by God. It is the experience of God’s love that casts out fear.

This is one of the classic ways to understand the basic fears, their corresponding desires and programs for happiness. Most people typically live with one of these sets as a dominant reality in their lives. Which one fits your life? Have you begun to see it, own it, and expose it to the light?


  • being corrupt / to be right / perfectionism and judgment
  • being useless /to be useful / helping or nurturing
  • being worthless /to be worthy / achievement and performance
  • being defective /to be understood / self-expression or individuality
  • being overwhelmed / to be competent /investigation or learning
  • being unprotected / to be safe /loyalty and skepticism
  • being deprived / to be satisfied /adventure and experience
  • being violated / to be in control /challenging or leadership
  • being uncomfortable / to be content /mediation or peacemaking
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  • Yonah

    The parameters of fear described here are upper middle class, male, white.

    I would point out that there are few poor Black single parent women with kids who post on Patheos…but, somebody ought to fix that.

  • TwistedRelic

    What I fear most is that there really is no God,no Creator…and that life/existence, is for all intents and purposes basically meaningless….except for whatever arbitrary meaning we choose as individuals to assign to it. I would like there to be a God, but so far I find no evidence or reason to believe in such an entity. One of the philosophers that I admire most is Albert Camus.

  • DavidWNaas

    Thomas Merton was not exactly a psychologist, and his own boogy-men were more than enough for him… Because he was popular does not make him fight. Don’t adopt his judgments as your own.