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Working with the Fires of Fear

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Beth Anstandig

What can we say about 2020 at this point? I find it difficult to choose words to capture the pain, anxiety, and losses that our human species has been facing. As a writer and lover of language, rarely have I been at a loss for words. This moment in time, The Great Pause, has forced us to stay–to see and feel realities we have been able to run from for far too long. 

This has been a year of reckoning, for sure. Truths and wounds have risen to the surface. We now know deeply all that needs to heal. 

September here in California has been a fiery and smoky mess. Nature always has a way of teaching us palpable lessons. The outside world is burning, hundreds of thousands of acres, while our internal landscapes have also been on fire. Our households, our mental health, work teams, virtual classrooms, culture groups, race relations, and our neighborhoods face an inferno of upset and trauma. There are these visible and invisible wars around every corner. We can all feel it, the pressure of conflict and the tension of change.

I certainly don’t want to sound dark and despondent here. I’m actually full of hope! But it’s important to accurately name what is happening. Like a crucible heating up so that a chemical change can occur, our need for transformation and evolution is as hot as it has ever been. I keep asking: Is the water boiling yet? Is this rock bottom? Have we hit the tipping point?

The day after we moved 50 horses to my ranch, 3 new fires started within a few miles. There was so much smoke from the mega fires, it was impossible to tell if the smaller fires were erupting and about to put us at risk; however, the sirens and phone alerts threw all of us into action. It took about 45 seconds for the emotional fire to spread and for a ranch full of humans to catch each other’s sparks. Fear spreads like that. Fast, unrelenting, and without discrimination of what or who is in its path. 

I felt the heat and the rush of panic, filling every inch of my body. It was an unstoppable force, so much like those walls of flame that were swallowing up the mountain ranges nearby. I’m not sure if it was survival or wisdom that cued me, but I removed myself. I stepped away from the collective panic, and I walked to the back of my property, a special corner where I always seem to find what I need. It was counterintuitive to step away. In so many ways, we are trained and socialized to jump into action. But I was struggling to hear myself through the uproar of frightened and worried thoughts swirling between my ears. I wanted access to that much quieter but powerful voice, that inner mammal who knows exactly what to do. 

People started loading horses, certain we needed to evacuate the ranch and that we were in imminent danger. From my quiet corner, I watched. I breathed. I waited. And, I watched the horses, calmly meandering the pastures, peaceful and grounded even though most of them were in unfamiliar surroundings and with herds they didn’t know.  I called a nearby rancher friend who I look to for sound advice and asked her if we were in danger. She’s a unique part of my support system. She’s a natural worrier but she comes from generations of ranching. I could feel my own shakiness as I asked, “Is our whole valley about to get engulfed in flames?” She said my name and then paused. Then she told me to breathe. “Beth, we’re fine. We’re safe. Relax.”

I share this story as a reminder about the fires that live within us. We have tremendous power to work with our own fear. When we don’t, it will take over. It always does. So much of our relational and cultural inflammation is rooted in fear and trauma. It is unlikely we will find our solutions to life’s daily problems or the much larger societal ones,  if we are in that place of panic and fear. It’s okay to step back, to pause and breathe, to sort out if the fire inside of us is hot with fear. When it is, it’s best to quiet that first. It doesn’t mean we need to shut down or suppress the important things we stand for. It’s just a matter of choosing which fire gets to run the show. With less fear, the fire of passion, creativity, empowerment, and service can burn brighter. 

The world needs fewer fires of fear these days. It’s a daily and sometimes hourly practice and it’s best done with the support of trusted others. Many of us are limping along. Don’t forget to see that–in yourself and in others. Leading ourselves and others is an inside job first and foremost. We must come from a grounded and stable place or we are the spark that spreads into a destructive emotional fire. 

Seek to understand. Listen with a brave ear. Speak with a thoughtful tongue. Even when we think it’s time to move fast, it’s likely that slowing down will be most helpful. We need a chance to see each other so we can remember that we need each other. 

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