What Are We All So Afraid Of?

“Be not afraid.  A kind life, a life of spirit, is fundamentally a life of courage—the courage simply to bring what you have, to bring who you are.” (Wayne Muller)

Attribution: Donna CameronAs I continue to re-examine some of the key ideas that emerged during my initial year of living kindly, I note how often fear emerges as a barrier to kindness—both to our expressing it and to our receiving it. And beyond inhibiting kindness, fear is also very often at the root of unkindness and incivility.

Why is fear such a big factor in keeping us from being our best selves?

Extending Kindness

We’re often hesitant to extend a kindness because we fear the result. Is it the right thing? Will I say the wrong words? Is it enough? Is it too much? Will it be rejected? Will I be rejected? If I offer assistance to someone, will they take offense that I perceived them as incapable? Fear can be paralyzing and our opportunity to express it passes by swiftly.

We also fear embarrassment. Kindness may take us out of our comfort zone; it may ask us to do something new. Perhaps we’ll be clumsy or awkward, or we’ll call attention to ourselves in an unwelcome way. If I stop to hand a couple of dollars to someone in need, will my companion scold me and call me a bleeding heart?

The question we all too often fail to ask is, “Could my kindness here make a positive difference?”

Receiving Kindness

On the receiving end of kindness, we may fear being perceived as weak or needy. Or perhaps we want to maintain a distance between ourselves and the giver; we fear strings may be attached to the proffered kindness. Receiving can be just as awkward and clumsy as giving—maybe we fear we don’t deserve the kindness, or it is out of proportion to our own smaller generosity. Maybe we’ll embarrass the giver, or ourselves. Accepting the kindness of others with grace and appreciation is itself an act of kindness. And a pretty easy one, at that. But it takes practice. Whether you are offered a material gift, assistance, or a compliment, do your best to receive it courteously and savor the kindness.

Perhaps the question to ask here is, “What’s the most gracious response I can offer?”

Behaving Unkindly

When we see unkindness, at its root is often fear. When someone lashes out at another person, it may not be for anything the person has or hasn’t done. They are simply the nearest individual on whom to deflect blame, embarrassment, or anger. Not so long ago at a downtown hotel parking lot, a number of people were in line at the payment kiosk. The person who was trying to pay could not get his credit card to work. He turned it one way, then the next, he inserted it slowly, then quickly. He tried a different card with the same result. People behind him were beginning to get impatient, though they tried not to show it. Finally, someone suggested pushing the button that would summon an attendant. When the attendant arrived, he helped the fellow process his payment in less than 30 seconds. Instead of being grateful, the man just got angrier. He berated the attendant for the machine’s poor quality, and for the exorbitant price of the parking, and finally for the inconvenience he was subjected to. Perhaps he was angered over the inconvenience, but it appeared more likely that he was embarrassed and feared the judgment of people waiting behind him to pay. Were they thinking he was incompetent? After all, none of the people ahead of him had experienced any problem with the machine.

Many of the things we fear are threats to our pride, to the image we have of ourselves. When our pride is threatened, when we fear that others—or even ourselves—will see that we are not as strong, smart, capable, or lovable as we believe ourselves to be, we often strike out or strike back. We act unkindly.

The question to ask here is, “What am I afraid of?”

I think one of the best moments of our lives is when we stop worrying about what other people think of us or how we are being judged. The truth is that most people are far too concerned with themselves to spend much time appraising others. And those who do want to belittle, snicker, and sneer simply aren’t worth worrying about!

Change the Question

When I first wrote about how fear inhibits our kindness, I suggested that the question we often ask ourselves in the face of fear, “What’s the worst that could happen?” is the wrong question to ask. I still believe that’s true. Much better is to ask, “What’s the best that could happen?” Focusing on best enables us to see the potential our kindness holds—to brighten a life, to alter the tone of an encounter, to change the world. We need to remember that kindness has ripples far beyond our awareness. A seemingly small action could trigger others, which trigger still more, and, ultimately, might be the tipping point that transforms the world.

Focusing on best diminishes our fear and also keeps our desired goal front-and-center in our mind. If we focus on worst, our subconscious points toward it. If we focus on best, all our capacities conspire to make that happen. All it takes is practice and confidence that the path of kindness will lead us where we want to go.

The Power of Kindness

Many people still choose to see kindness as a sign of weakness. They erroneously equate it with being wishy-washy or a pushover. If I exhibit kindness, I’ll be inviting others to take advantage of me. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kindness takes strength, it takes resolve and courage, and the willingness to be vulnerable.

When fear threatens to deter our kindness, or to incite unkindness, we need to remember that kindness has the ability and power to vanquish our fears. Then, step past the fear and claim our kindness.

“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.” (Amelia Earhart)