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The Conquest of Fear(Chapter1)

2006-09-07 20:28

  Chapter I. Fear and the Life-Principle


  When I say that during most of my conscious life I have been a prey to fears I take it for granted that I am expressing the case of the majority of people. I cannot remember the time when a dread of one kind or another was not in the air. In childhood it was the fear of going to bed, of that mysterious time when regular life was still going on downstairs, while I was buried alive under sheets and blankets. Later it was the fear of school, the first contact of the tender little soul with life's crudeness. Later still there was the experience which all of us know of waking in the morning with a feeling of dismay at what we have to do on getting up; the obvious duties in which perhaps we have grown stale; the things we have neglected; those in which we have made mistakes; those as to which we have wilfully done wrong; those which weary or bore or annoy or discourage us. Sometimes there are more serious things still: bereavements, or frightfully adverse conditions, or hardships we never expected brought on us by someone else.

  It is unnecessary to catalogue these situations, since we all at times in our lives have to face them daily. Fear dogs one of us in one way and another in another, but everyone in some way.

  Look at the people you run up against in the course of a few hours. Everyone is living or working in fear. The mother is afraid for her children. The father is afraid for his business. The clerk is afraid for his job. The worker is afraid of his boss or his competitor. There is hardly a man who is not afraid that some other man will do him a bad turn. There is hardly a woman who is not afraid that things she craves may be denied her, or that what she loves may be snatched away. There is not a home or an office or a factory or a school or a church in which some hang-dog apprehension is not eating at the hearts of the men, women, and children who go in and out. I am ready to guess that all the miseries wrought by sin and sickness put together would not equal those we bring on ourselves by the means which perhaps we do least to counteract. We are not sick all the time; we are not sinning all the time; but all the time all of us——or practically all of us——are afraid of someone or something. If, therefore, one has the feeblest contribution to make to the defeat of such a foe it becomes difficult to withhold it.


  But even with a view to conquering fear I should not presume to offer to others ideas worked out purely for myself had I not been so invited. I do not affirm that I have conquered fear, but only that in self-defence I have been obliged to do something in that direction. I take it for granted that what goes in that direction will go all the way if pursued with perseverance and good will. Having thus made some simple experiments——chiefly mental——with what to me are effective results, I can hardly refuse to tell what they have been when others are so good as to ask me.

  And in making this attempt I must write from my own experience. No other method would be worth while. The mere exposition of a thesis would have little or no value. It is a case in which nothing can be helpful to others which has not been demonstrated for oneself, even though the demonstration be but partial.

  In writing from my own experience I must ask the reader's pardon if I seem egoistic or autobiographical. Without taking oneself too smugly or too seriously one finds it the only way of reproducing the thing that has happened in one's own life and which one actually knows.

  And when I speak above of ideas worked out purely for myself I do not, of course, mean that these ideas are original with me. All I have done has been to put ideas through the mill of my own mind, co-ordinating them to suit my own needs. The ideas themselves come from many sources. Some of these sources are, so deep in the past that I could no longer trace them; some are so recent that I know the day and hour when they revealed themselves, like brooks in the way. It would be possible to say to the reader, "I owe this to such and such a teaching, and that to such and such a man," only that references of the kind would be tedious. I fall back on what Emerson says: "Thought is the property of him who can entertain it; and of him who can adequately place it. A certain awkwardness marks the use of borrowed thoughts; but, as soon as we have learned what to do with them, they become our own. Thus all originality is relative." The thoughts that I shall express are my own to the extent that I have lived them——or tried to live them——though the wind that bloweth where it listeth may have brought them to my mind.

  Nor do I think for a moment that what I have found helpful to me must of necessity be helpful to everyone. It may be helpful to someone. That is the limit of my hope. It is simple fact that no one can greatly help anyone else. The utmost we can do is to throw out an idea here and there which another may seize, and by which he may help himself. Borrowed help has the awkwardness which Emerson attributes to borrowed thoughts. It is only when a concept has lain for a time in a man's being, germinated there, and sprung into active life, that it is of much use to him; but by that time it has become his own. The kingdom of heaven must begin within oneself or we shall probably not find it anywhere.

  These pages will contain, then, no recipe for the conquest of fear; they will offer, with much misgiving and diffidence, no more than the record of what one individual has done toward conquering it. This record is presented merely for what it is worth. It may be worth nothing. On the other hand, someone may find it worth something, and in that case all that the writer hopes for will be attained.


  As a matter of fact, in my own case the reaction against fear was from the beginning more or less instinctive. With the first exercise of the reasoning faculty I tried to argue against the emotion. I remember that as a little boy I was afraid of a certain dog that barked at me when I went to a certain house to which I was sent perhaps two or three times a week. The house had a driveway, and from the minute of passing the entrance my knees trembled under me. But even then, I recall, it seemed to me that this terror was an incongruous thing in life, that it had no rightful place there, and that, if the world was what my elders told me it was, there must be in it a law of peace and harmony which as yet I hadn't arrived at. I cannot say that when the dog barked this reasoning did more than nerve me to drag my quaking limbs up to the doorstep, whence my enemy, a Skye terrier, invariably took flight.

  During a somewhat stormy childhood and boyhood, in which there was a good deal of emotional stress, I never got beyond this point. Specific troubles were not few, and by the time I reached early manhood a habit of looking for them had been established. "What's it going to be now?" became a formula of anticipation before every new event. New events presented themselves most frequently as menaces. Hopes rarely loomed up without accompanying probabilities of disappointment. One adopted the plan of "expecting disappointment" as a means of cheating the "jinx." I am not painting my early life as any darker than most lives. It was, I fancy, as bright as the average life of youth.


  But, contrary to what is generally held, I venture to think that youth is not a specially happy period. Because young people rarely voice their troubles we are likely to think them serene and unafraid. That has not been my experience either with them or of them. While it is true that cares of a certain type increase with age the knowledge of how to deal with them increases, or ought to increase, in the same progression. With no practical experience to support them the young are up against the unknown and problematical——occupation, marriage, sexual urge, life in general——around which clings that terror of the dark which frightened them in childhood. Home training, school training, college training, religious training, social influences of every kind, throw the emphasis on dangers rather than on securities, so that the young life emerges into a haunted world. Some are reckless of these dangers, some grow hardened to them, some enjoy the tussle with them, some turn their minds away from them, while others, chiefly the imaginative or the intellectual, shrink from them with the discomfort which, as years go on, becomes worry, anxiety, foreboding, or any other of the many forms of care.


  My own life followed what I assume to be the usual course, though in saying this I am anxious not to give an exaggerated impression. It was the usual course, not an unusual one. "There's always something" came to be a common mental phrase, and the something was, as a rule, not cheering. Neither, as a rule, was it terrible. It was just something——a sense of the carking hanging over life, and now and then turning to a real mischance or a heartache.

  It strikes me as strange, on looking back, that so little attempt was made to combat fear by religion. In fact, as far as I know, little attempt was made to combat fear in any way. One's attention was not called to it otherwise than as a wholly inevitable state. You were born subject to fear as you were born subject to death, and that was an end of it.

  Brought up in an atmosphere in which religion was our main preoccupation, I cannot recall ever hearing it appealed to as a counteragent to this most persistent enemy of man. In dealing with your daily dreads you simply counted God out. Either He had nothing to do with them or He brought them upon you. In any case His intervention on your behalf was not supposed to be in this world, and to look for rewards from Him here and now was considered a form of impiety. You were to be willing to serve God for naught; after which unexpected favours might be accorded you, but you were to hope for nothing as a right. I do not say that this is what I was taught; it was what I understood; but to the best of my memory it was the general understanding round about me. In my fight against fear, in as far as I made one, God was for many years of no help to me, or of no help of which I was aware. I shall return to the point later in telling how I came to "discover God" for myself, but not quite the same God, or not quite the same concept of God, which my youthful mind had supposed to be the only one.


  At the same time it was to a small detail in my religious training——or to be more exact in the explanation of the Bible given me as a boy——that I harked back when it became plain to me that either I must conquer fear or fear must conquer me. Having fallen into my mind like a seed, it lay for well on to thirty years with no sign of germination, till that "need," of which I shall have more to say presently, called it into life.

  Let me state in a few words how the need made itself pressing.

  It was, as life goes, a tolerably dark hour. I was on the borderland between young manhood and early middle age. For some years I had been losing my sight, on top of which came one of those troubles with the thyroid gland which medical science still finds obscure. For reasons which I need not go into I was spending an autumn at Versailles in France, unoccupied and alone.

  If you know Versailles you know that it combines all that civilisation has to offer of beauty, magnificence, and mournfulness. A day's visit from Paris will give you an inkling of this, but only an inkling. To get it all you must live there, to be interpenetrated by its glory of decay. It is always the autumn of the spirit at Versailles, even in summer, even in spring; but in the autumn of the year the autumnal emotion of the soul is poignant beyond expression. Sad gardens stretch into sad parks; sad parks into storied and haunting forests. Long avenues lead to forgotten chateaux mellowing into ruin. Ghostly white statues astonish you far in the depths of woods where the wild things are now the most frequent visitors. A Temple of Love——pillared, Corinthian, lovely——lost in a glade to which lovers have probably not come in a hundred years——will remind you that there were once happy people where now the friendliest sound is that of the wood-chopper's axe or the horn of some far-away hunt. All the old tales of passion, ambition, feud, hatred, violence, lust, and intrigue are softened here to an aching sense of pity. At night you will hear the castle clock, which is said never once to have failed to strike the hour since Louis the Fourteenth put it in its place, tolling away your life as it has tolled away epochs.

  Amid these surroundings a man ill, lonely, threatened with blindness, can easily feel what I may call the spiritual challenge of the ages. He must either be strong and rule; or he must be weak and go down. He must get the dominion over circumstance, or circumstance must get the dominion over him. To be merely knocked about by fate and submit to it, even in the case of seemingly inevitable physical infirmity, began to strike me as unworthy of a man.

  It is one thing, however, to feel the impulse to get up and do something, and another to see what you can get up and do. For a time the spectre of fear had me in its power. The physical facts couldn't be denied, and beyond the physical facts I could discern nothing. It was conceivable that one might react against a mental condition; but to react against a mysterious malady coupled with possibly approaching blindness was hardly to be thought of. When one added one's incapacity to work and earn a living, with all that that implies, it seemed as if it would take the faith that moves mountains to throw off the weight oppressing me. It is true that to move mountains you only need faith as a grain of mustard seed, but as far as one can judge not many of us have that much.

  It was then that my mind went back all of a sudden to the kernel planted so many years before, in my island home, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. If I become prolix over this it is only that I want to show how often it happens to parents, teachers, and others who deal with children, to throw out a thought which after lying dormant for years will become a factor in the life. Had it not been for the few words spoken then I should not, as far as I can see, now have such mastery over self as I have since attained——not very much——but I should not be writing these lines.


  My boyhood was placed in the times when Darwin's "Origin of Species" and "Descent of Man" had thrown the scientific and religious worlds into convulsion. The struggle between the old ideas and the new calls for no more than a reference here; but the teacher to whom I owe most was one who, while valuing the old, saw only an enrichment in the new, explaining the Bible in that spirit. So it happened that he spoke one day of the extraordinary ingenuity of the life-principle, which somehow came to the earth, in adapting itself to perpetually new conditions.

  Nothing defeated it. For millions of years it was threatened by climatic changes, by the lack of food, by the ferocity of fellow-creatures. Heat, cold, flood, drought, earthquake, and volcanic eruption were forever against it. Struggling from stage to stage upward from the slime a new danger was always to it a new incentive to finding a new resource.

  Pursued through the water it sought the land. Pursued on the land it sought the air. Pursued in the air it developed fleetness of wing, and in fleetness of wing a capacity for soaring, circling, balancing, dipping, and swinging on itself of which the grace must not blind us to the marvellous power of invention.

  In other words, the impulses leading to the origin of species proclaim a resourcefulness on the part of what we call life which we have every reason to think inexhaustible. Whatever the Fount of Being from which the life-principle first came into the waters of our earth there is no question but that with it came a conquest-principle as well. Had it been possible to exterminate the life-principle it would never have gone further than the age which saw the extinction of the great reptiles. The great reptiles went, but the life-principle stayed on, with the ability to assume, within our limited observation, all the forms between the bacillus and the elephant, while as to what lies beyond our observation the possibilities are infinite.

  Long before it works up to man we see this amazing force stemming an uncountable number of attacks, and meeting ruinous conditions with daring contrivances. For one kind of danger it develops a shell, for another a sting, for another a poison, for another a protective colouration. To breathe in the sea it puts forth gills, and makes lungs for itself when stranded on the land. In glacial cold it finds the means of growing fur; when heat and cold assail it by turns it packs itself with feathers; when climates become temperate it produces hair. For the creature which keeps to the water it webs the foot; for that which takes to the trees it makes the toes prehensile; for the one which learns to stand erect and run along the ground it flattens the sole, making it steady and supporting. To resist, to survive, to win through, is the end to which the life-principle sets itself with such singleness of aim as to unfold a wealth of potentiality astounding to us in looking backward.


  This was the idea which came back to me that autumn at Versailles, and from which in the course of time I drew my conclusions.

  Briefly, those conclusions were to the effect that as individuals we need difficulties to overcome, and that fear is a stimulus to overcoming them. Otherwise expressed, fear loses much of its fearfulness when we see it as the summons to putting forth new energies. Unless we were conscious of the energies such a call would not reach us. The creatures preceding man could have felt no misgiving, since they lacked the imagination essential to a dread. Such fear as they were equal to must have seized them in paroxysms of terror when calamities threatened to overwhelm them. If they made good their escape no trace of the fear remained behind, the brain having little or no power of retention. We may take it for granted that the pterodactyl and the trachodon had none of the foreboding based on experience which destroys the peace of man.

  Fear, as we understand it, was in itself a signal of advance. It could only have begun with the exercise of reason. Arrived at the rudiments of memory the creature must have been able to perceive, however dimly, that the thing which had happened might happen again. Adding the first stirrings of imagination he must have constructed possible events in which the danger would come from the same causes as before. With the faculties to remember, to reason, and to imagine all at work we reach the first stages of man.

  Man was born into fear in that he was born into a world of which most of the energies were set against him. He was a lone thing fighting his own battle. The instinct for association which made the mammals different from other animals didn't help him much, since association did not bring mutual help as a matter of course, and never has done so. A man could count on no one but himself. Not only were prodigious natural forces always menacing him with destruction; not only was the beast his enemy and he the enemy of the beast; but his hand was against his fellow-man and his fellow-man's hand against him. This mutual hostility followed men in their first groupings into communities, and only to a degree have we lived it down in the twentieth century.

  Perhaps this conviction that a man's strength lay in standing single-handed against circumstance was the first small discovery I made in my own fight with fear. Looking back on the developments which had brought man into the world I saw a marvellous power of getting round difficulties when you couldn't cut through them. Just as a river which cannot flow over a rock can glide about its feet and turn it into a picturesque promontory, so I recognised in myself an inborn human faculty for "sidestepping" that which blocked my way, when I couldn't break it down.

  I left Versailles with just that much to the good——a perception that the ages had bequeathed me a store of abilities which I was allowing to lie latent. Moving into Paris, to more cheerful surroundings, I took up again the writing of the book I had abandoned more than a year previously. After long seclusion I began to see a few people, finding them responsive and welcoming. My object in stating these unimportant details is merely to show that in proportion as I ceased to show fear the life-principle hastened to my aid. Little by little I came to the belief that the world about me was a system of co-operative friendliness, and that it was my part to use it in that way.


  To use it in that way was not easy. I was so accustomed to the thought of Nature as a complex of self-seeking cruelties, the strong preying on the weak, and the weak defenceless, that the mere idea of its containing a ruling co-operative principle seemed at times far-fetched. To the common opinion of the day, my own included, the conception of a universe that would come to a man's aid the minute a man came to his own was too much like a fairy tale. It may indeed be a fairy tale. All I know is that in my own case it is the way in which it seems to have worked. I think I have caught a glimpse of a constructive use for that which I had previously thought of as only destructive and terrible.

  This is what I mean. The life-principle having, through unknown millions of years, developed the conquest-principle by meeting difficulties and overcoming them, the difficulties had a value. To man, especially, the menace of Nature, the ferocity of the beast, and the enmity of his fellow-man furnished the incentive to his upward climb. Had all been easy he would have stayed where he was. He would never have called mental powers to his physical aid, nor appealed to spiritual faculties when the mental fell short of his requirements. Spurred on by a necessity which grew more urgent in proportion as the life-principle widened its scope, the conquest-principle became an impulse which would brook no denying. Man grew by it; but the fact remains that he would not have grown had there been nothing for him to struggle with.

  To me it seems basic to the getting rid of fear to know that our trials, of whatever nature, are not motiveless. In our present stage of development we could hardly do without them. So often looking like mere ugly excrescences on life they are in reality the branches by which we catch on and climb. They are not obstacles to happiness for the reason that the only satisfying happiness we are equal to as yet is that of wrestling with the difficult and overcoming it. Every call of duty has its place in this ideal; every irksome job, every wearisome responsibility. The fact that we are not always aware of it in no way annuls the other fact that it is so. Boredom, monotony, drudgery, bereavement, loneliness, all the clamour of unsatisfied ambitions and aching sensibilities, have their share in this divine yearning of the spirit to grasp what as yet is beyond its reach. All of that hacking of the man to fit the job rather than the shaping of the job to fit the man, which is, I imagine, the source of most of the discontent on earth, has its place here, as well as the hundreds of things we shouldn't do if we were not compelled to. Whatever summons us to conflict summons us to life, and life, as we learn from a glance at the past, never shirks the challenge.

  It never shirks the challenge, and, what is more, it never fails to find the expedient by which the new demand is to be satisfied. To the conquest of fear that plank must be foundational. As far as we can learn there never was an emergency yet which the life-principle was not equipped to meet. When all existing methods had been used up it invented new ones; when seemingly at the end of its new resources it was only beginning to go on again.


  The deduction I make is this, that a law which was operative on such a scale before man had come into the world at all must be still more effective now that we can help to carry it out. The life-principle is not less ingenious than it ever was, while the conquest-principle must have widely expanded. It is an axiom in all progress that the more we conquer the more easily we conquer. We form a habit of conquering as insistent as any other habit. Victory becomes, to some degree, a state of mind. Knowing ourselves superior to the anxieties, troubles, and worries which obsess us, we are superior. It is a question of attitude in confronting them. It is more mental than it is material. To be in harmony with the life-principle and the conquest-principle is to be in harmony with power; and to be in harmony with power is to be strong as a matter of course.

  The individual is thus at liberty to say: "The force which never failed before is not likely to fail in my case. The fertility of resource which circumvented every kind of obstacle to make me what I am——a vertebrate, breathing, walking, thinking entity, capable of some creative expression of my own——will probably not fall short now that I have immediate use for it. Of what I get from the past, prehistoric and historic, perhaps the most subtle distillation is the fact that so far is the life-principle from balking at need, need is essential to its activity. Where there is no need it seems to be quiescent; where there is something to be met, contended with, and overcome, it is furiously 'on the job.' That life-principle is my principle. It is the seed from which I spring. It is my blood, my breath, my brain. I cannot cut myself off from it; it cannot cut itself off from me. Having formed the mastodon to meet one set of needs and the butterfly to meet another, it will form, something to meet mine, even if something altogether new. The new——or what seems new to me——is apparently the medium in which it is most at home. It repeats itself never——not in two rosebuds, not in two snowflakes. Who am I that I should be overlooked by it, or miss being made the expression of its infinite energies?"


  What this reasoning did for me from the start was to give me a new attitude toward the multifold activity we call life. I saw it as containing a principle that would work with me if I could work with it. My working with it was the main point, since it was working with me always. Exactly what that principle was I could not at the time have said; I merely recognised it as being there.

  The method of working with it was simple in idea, however difficult in practice. It was a question of my own orientation. I had to get mentally into harmony with the people and conditions I found about me. I was not to distrust them; still less was I to run away from them. I was to make a parable of my childish experience with the Skye terrier, assuming that life was organised to do me good. I remembered how many times the Bible begins some bit of pleading or injunction with the words, "Fear not." Other similar appeals came back to me. "Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong I fear not."[1] "Quit yourselves like men; be strong."[2] "O man greatly beloved, fear not! Peace be unto thee! Be strong, yea, be Strong."[3] When, at some occasional test, dismay or self-pity took hold of me I formed a habit of saying to myself, in our expressive American idiom: "This is your special stunt. It's up to you to do this thing just as if you had all the facilities. Go at it boldly, and you'll find unexpected forces closing round you and Coming to your aid."

  [1] The Book of Isaiah.

  [2] First Book of Samuel.

  [3] Book of Daniel.

  Which is just what I did find. To an amazing degree people were friendly, while conditions became easier. Fear diminished because I had fewer things to be afraid of. Having fewer things to be afraid of my mind was clearer for work. Work becoming not only more of a resource but more remunerative as well, all life grew brighter. Fear was not overcome; I had only made a more or less hesitating stand against it; but even from doing that I got positive results.

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