“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” — Albert Einstein
Every day for the past five months, I have been growing more intense about changing the world.
I have watched some of the brilliant ContraPoints episodes and familiarized myself with socialist ideas. I have been engaged in the Earth Strike protests, telling everyone who’d listen that climate change is the most burning issues of our time. I have argued that we need more feminism, less capitalism, more compassion and less greed.
More often than not, I have been playing my part in reinforcing the narrative of the fear. And I don’t blame myself. We are living in times that The New York Times columnist David Brooks called “an era defined by fear.”
It is all too easy these days to either overlook the fear that drives our most important conversations — or even, to see it fear as the best driver of the necessary change. The latter was apparent, for example, in one of Greta Thunberg’s most popular speeches:
“ I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”
But fear isn’t a good advisor. Allowing ourselves to be driven by fear inevitably results in creating more fear. Or anger, which is — according to Martha C. Nussbaum’s The Monarchy of Fear – “the child of fear.”
Both the father and the child are actually limiting us in solving problems. So we should elevate our actions beyond those limitations. But to deal with such primary emotions as fear or anger, we need something more than just pop-psychological notions of “positive thinking.”
We need a spiritual revolution.
Last autumn I experienced first-hand the extent to which fear can have agency over my decisions. I travelled on my own to New Delhi and, once I arrived, I almost immediately started having health problems. I don’t want to go into detail, but it’s enough to say that my condition wasn’t life-threatening.
Through the lens of fear, however, it felt as if it was.
Me being alone in the Indian capital was already super stressful. But when my health started deteriorating on top of that? To me, that was reason enough to bring about first panic attacks ever in my life. And when I reflect on those moments now, I realize that there is probably no emotion more powerful than fear.
That’s because fear is closely tied to our survival instinct. When we feel really afraid, it seems as if our very existence is threatened. And this means our fight-or-flight mechanism automatically fires off.
In those moments, nothing else exists in our awareness. What matters is survival.
But my story in India clearly shows that even though our automatic brain response indicates we are fighting for our lives — this is usually not the case. My experience felt as if I was about to die. However, in reality, I was experiencing my panic attacks in a cab or my Airbnb bedroom, where I was, objectively speaking, safe.
This is the case for most of our experiences of fear in modern times. Our biology makes us react with fear to certain social situations — for example, when we think we may “sound stupid” or a person we look up to may be angry with us. In reality, these things are no real threats to survival. But our experience of them is very real.
When we are afraid, fear is pretty much all that exists. That’s why having a logical argument between two people who act upon fear is virtually impossible.
But what does it mean to our societies if political, economic and cultural decision making is driven by fear?
My own observations and those made by David Brooks in An Era Defined By Fear point me to notice that, as of today, a big part of our world is indeed shaped by fear.
The fear of immigrants and terrorism as a driving force for political decisions. The fear of environmental disaster shaping the rhetoric of political oppositions. Individual “fears about the future” concerning our work and financial stability.
And hear me out — I am not trying to dismiss those fears. There is no point in pretending that they don’t exist. In fact, I believe that the only way to stop them from being the decisive forces directing our collective behaviour is to learn how to embrace them fully and work with them.
It’s the art of emotional intelligence that we need to learn as a society. For ages, humans used to identify themselves with their emotions — and it is very apparent even in our language. We are used to saying things like “I am angry” or “I am in love” — instead of “I feel anger and love.” And that’s a profound difference. It reflects whether we believe that we are our emotions — or whether those emotions are just part of our temporary experience.
When comes to fear, the difference is meaningful. Because when we manage to see our fears as experiences, rather than “the truth,” then we can teach ourselves how to act from the place of love despite the fear. For this, we need a wide-spread spiritual revolution.
Some of the biggest religions that has until recently been in charge of the individuals’ spirituality built of fear to accumulate power. I can certainly see that in the Catholic religion within the dogmas of which I have been raised.
As early as at 8 years old, I was told that God forgives humans most of their sins. However, I also learned that there were a few eternal sins which, if I committed them, would doom me to spend an eternity in hell. Those deeds even the loving God couldn’t justify — and hence, you don’t get another chance once you fall for them.
If this is not an attempt to control people from an early age based on their fear — then I don’t know what it is. And what I am saying is that, today, we need a new kind of spirituality that could act as the last bastion shielding us from the overwhelming power of fear.
The new spirituality needs to teach us how we can come to terms with our fear. How to familiarize ourselves with it — rather than suppress it. It starts with understanding our own psychology, rather than obeying dogmas. This process can be supported by others outside of you — but ultimately has to be driven by your own inner commitment.
I firmly believe that we do change the world by looking within first. It matters a great deal whether you act from a place of fear or love. And to act from the place of love doesn’t mean to erase the fear.
It means to learn how to live with it, but without succumbing to its rule.