I don’t have time for my fear
Gwen Ifill taught me a number of lessons. The most important one was how and why to fight fear.
Stop being scared for a minute, and listen up. We need to talk about fear, people, because I don’t have time for it and, frankly, neither do you.
Fear is a weed that can grow in any garden. It knows no politics, religion, race or creed. When we let fear take root, we put all of the beautiful things we have planted in our lives at risk — the blooming flowers of community, family, love, acceptance, tolerance, patience, equity and resilience, to name a few. Fear is a weed with many, ugly flowers: xenophobia, hate, misogyny, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, religious extremism, and the list goes on.
Worse yet, fear is a weed that nourishes itself; it literally feeds on its own toxins.
Fear drives us to make irrational decisions. Then, when we experience the negative consequences of those decisions, we fear even more.
Fear pushes us away from one another and away from information that might help us help one another and ourselves. That ignorance and lack of awareness grows the number of unknowns in our lives, which lead us to become more afraid.
Fear leads us to satisfy short-term wants rather than plan for long-term needs. Then, when we are met with the consequences of our failure to make brave decisions and plan long-term, we fear even more.
Fear holds us back from achieving our potential. Then, when we stop trusting or believing in ourselves, we fear trying new things or asking for help from others. Oh, and then that fear drives us to hold others back whom we don’t know or understand. We also learn to fear others who, fueled by their own fear, try to hold us back.
Fear keeps us from ever knowing or understanding others in the first place.
Fear is a pernicious, unrelenting and destructive enemy. If the apocalypse occurs before Earth is obliterated by the implosion of the Sun or collision with an asteroid, the root cause will be fear that has grown out of control. We will fear changing our habits and practices so that we might protect our environment. We will fear enacting policies that help Americans in need of dignity through work and help families and communities struggling with addiction. We will fear giving others rights to freedom of expression, religion or any of the civil rights so many brave people fought and died to ensconce and defend. We will fear people who differ from us in any way. We will fear looking ourselves in the mirror.
Franklin D. Roosevelt told the American people during his inauguration in 1933 — one of the nation’s darkest hours: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
He told us too that, “This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.”
I hear that quote repeated a lot, and some folks even nail that unique, received pronunciation-y drawl that was one the hallmarks of Roosevelt and the New England upper-crust.
It’s about time we lived up to the meaning behind that moment in history.
This is not to say we should lead lives absolutely free of fear. The fact of the matter is, we can’t be completely free of fear. But fear must be managed. We must recognize it, acknowledge it, investigate it and nurture ourselves to work through it. We must not give over the gardens of our hearts to fear.
I have heard a lot of friends and family this week tell me they are downright terrified. They fear that the country they thought they lived in no longer exists. The people celebrating the election results today likely felt that way eight years ago. Funny how that works. If they are black or brown, they fear becoming the victims of violence because of their race. If they are white, they too fear becoming victims because of their race. Funny how that works too, isn’t it?
The only thing that’s winning in all of this? You guessed it: Fear.
So, let’s quit it. Quit being so afraid. We don’t have time for it, and it’s merely making things worse. If you fear anything, fear what your fear does to you and to others.
‘Want to move to Canada? Stop it. Canada doesn’t need your fear any more than we need it here.
‘Feel the need to put on a safety pin? Stop it. A safety pin just tells others that you’re now scared as they have been for years. It doesn’t tell them that they’re safe.
‘Want to hole up and wait in your house for the next four years? Stop it. Go out and work to improve your community today. Besides, we get to vote every two years at the national level.
‘Going to get an IUD because you fear potential policy changes relative to women’s health and reproduction? Quit it. Donate to organizations that advance women’s health and vote in your statewide elections. If you really want to step up, run for office like my friend Michael Tubbs. Now, if you want an IUD because it makes sense for you as you go about your life and family planning. Awesome. But don’t do it out of post-election fear.
‘Doubling down on your filter bubble because it makes you feel good? Stop it. Start reading things that don’t conform to your worldview. Check out the PBS NewsHour, ProPublica, FactCheck.org (full disclosure: I worked for them for three years) or the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Fear hates facts.
‘Buying up survivalist gear because you think the end is nigh? Quit it. Use the money to help a family struggling to make ends meet have a Thanksgiving dinner. Better yet, try doing it for a family that voted for the other side of the aisle.
My mentor, Gwen Ifill, passed away this week. The news hit me with the force of an arctic wind. The garden of my heart was bathed in ice. I thought, for a moment, all the flowers I had planted might die. The one flower that started to grow, however, was fear. I felt the dark veins of its root system begin to spread quickly. I started to shake and gasp for air. I was so scared of a world without Gwen’s professionalism, strength, integrity and, most importantly, bravery.
Gwen could stare down the Vice President of the United States and dictate the rules by which he must abide during a presidential debate. She could go on camera every night knowing that there were people in the world who would not watch her or support her career because she was black — or that there were people who did solely because she was. She would beat back the darkness of fear and bigotry with the light of open-mindedness, research, fact-checking, resilience and discipline. She pushed through fear every day. I believe she fought it back hardest on her last.
I think there were points when she had pushed so much, had planted so many beautiful, strong flowers in herself and others, that she didn’t feel fear at all.
It was a privilege — one of the greatest gifts of my life — to work for and with a woman who knew how to tend a garden in which fear could not take root. She taught me how to build fences against it, how to cut it back when it got out of control and how to even lasso the sun and pull it closer so that it might melt the frost that sometimes sets in.
I was reminded, in the moment I learned of Gwen’s passing, to not make a scene, since she would not have approved. Not spoken was this: Gwen would not abide your fear when she had taught you so well how to be brave.
Now, I am passing that lesson on to you.
Stop being afraid. Stop letting fear hold you back from the work that must be done to grow peace and prosperity for the most people possible. Stop fearing people whose politics differ from yours. Stop fearing facts that don’t align with your perception of the world. Stop fearing people who don’t look like you do. Stop fearing people who worship differently than you do. Stop looking at the challenges we collectively face and saying, “But, I’m scared.”
Gwen didn’t have time for her fear. She certainly didn’t have time for mine. I know she wouldn’t have time for yours.
So, roll up your sleeves, tend your garden, and stop letting fear take root. You don’t have time for it.
A version of this piece originally appeared in the weekly newsletter that accompanies this publication.