• Rabbi Marc Kraus

Embrace Fear

Updated: Nov 14, 2017

One day in 1819, in one of the most remote regions of the Pacific Ocean, 20 American sailors watched their ship flood with seawater. As their ship began to sink beneath the waves, the men huddled together in three small whaleboats which only carried limited supplies of food and water. The men knew that the nearest islands they could reach were the Marquesas Islands, 1,200 miles away. But they'd heard some frightening rumors. They'd been told that these islands were populated by cannibals. Instead, terrified, they chose to begin the perilous 3,000-mile journey to South America. After more than two months at sea, the men ran out of food, and were still far from land. When the last of the survivors were finally picked up by two passing ships, less than half of the men were left alive, and some had resorted to cannibalism.[1]

I think you will agree that this story is extraordinary. So scared that they might encounter cannibals, these desperate men chose the most difficult route to safety. In so doing, not only did most of them die, but they became the very thing they feared most.

Carol Thompson Walker says of our fears:

What if instead of calling them fears, we called them stories? Because that's really what fear is, if you think about it. It's a kind of unintentional storytelling that we are all born knowing how to do. Fears… have plots. They have beginnings and middles and ends. You board the plane. The plane takes off. The engine fails. Our fears also tend to contain imagery that can be every bit as vivid as what you might find in the pages of a novel... Our fears provoke in us a very similar form of suspense. Just like all great stories, our fears focus our attention on a question that is as important in life as it is in literature: What will happen next?

From Walker’s perspective, our fears are stories we tell in which we torture ourselves by imagining unrealized catastrophes. By her logic, we should focus hard on imagining success instead.

The rabbis offer a second strategy for dealing with fear in an early midrash. They ask, “Why Jacob decided to live in a place where he was surrounded by enemies?” In answer they tell a parable:

Once upon a time there was a man who was journeying through wilderness to a distant land. One day, while eating his rations, a pack of wild animals came and surrounded him. The man was seized by fear but knew that if he ran, they would easily catch him. Instead, he sat down and finished his lunch.[2]

This parable describes the choice we have when we are confronted by fear. We can run from our fear, we can push it away, but ultimately that feeds the fear itself. Instead, we can embrace it, be present with it and stand our ground.

Yet, perhaps we can rethink what fear is. Perhaps, we can transform some fears – like a job interview – into excitement. Journalist Maria Shriver puts it like this: “Anxiety is a glimpse of our own daring.”[3] Perhaps part of our agitation, when we feel fear, is excitement at what we might be able to accomplish.

All of these authors ask us to rethink our fear. Instead of imagining failure, we can imagine success. Instead of running and feeding our fear, we can stand our ground. Instead of feeling that fear is warning us away, perhaps it is a trusty indicator that we are about to grow in ways we could never previously imagine.

[1] Adapted from a TED talk by Carol Thompson Walker.

[2] Gen Rab 84:5 and others. See Sefer Ha-Aggadah 50:88.

[3] Best Advice I Ever Got p 27.

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