How many times have you heard the above quote?
I know I have probably heard it a hundred times in my life, but I have never really put a whole lot of thought into it.
On the surface it seems to me to be an inspiring, yet very general sentiment:
“Fear is in the imagination.”
“The reality of a situation is never as bad as you think its going to be.”
“Keep your head about you.”
That is how I always interpreted FDR’s words.
But you know how it is when you hear a song a million times and always pay more attention to the catchy tune rather than the lyrics, until one day you finally take notice and think to yourself “Oh is THAT what this song is about?” It was much the same for me when, one day after the election of Donald Trump when my mind was apparently quite fertile with the seeds of fear, I heard a news anchor mention FDR’s famous quote and it “hit” me what it meant.
It wasn’t just a poetic way of saying “nothing is as bad as you think it is going to be”. What FDR was saying in his first inaugural address, during the Great Depression when jobs were lost and people were struggling for food, shelter and some element of certainty in their lives, was that there is nothing to fear but the RESULT of fear.
Fear has power.
Fear has been said to be the most powerful trigger of irrational thinking and behavior, in otherwise mentally heathy individuals, that there is.
Fear can be a catalyst for calamity on both a personal and global level.
Fear has the power to cloud our judgement. Fear has the power to lift us up off the ground and sweep us into a cloud of disarray and chaos. Fear has the power to make us believe things that defy the laws of common sense and reason. Fear has the power to make us feel the urge to react impulsively, often in ways that make no sense to ourselves and/or to those around us. Fear has the power to take away our sense of control, possibly to the point where we willingly hand it over to somebody else. Fear can make us feel sick inside and consume our every thought. Fear can even breed more fear until it becomes the most important thing in our lives – and in the right circumstances, it can even spread out into the world like a wildfire, and leave disastrous consequences in its wake:
*Look at the witch hunts in Salem where innocent people were brutally killed because the towns people were afraid they were satanic and putting spells on people.
*Think of Germany and how Hitler preyed upon people’s fears of instability, uncertainty and a possible communist takeover, in order to gain a huge following and take power.
*During the Depression Era, when FDR said this now famous quote, there was a banking crisis and people were panicking. The fear and despair were so great that some were jumping out of windows. People quit trusting the government as well as the banks, so they withdrew all their money and started hoarding it in their homes, in kitchen tins or under their mattresses.
I once knew a man who lost his wife, and after she died he decided to give me many of her personal items, as he had no children to give them to. As I was going through the boxes I found 3-4 envelopes with hundreds of dollars in them, in books and trinket boxes. When I gave the envelopes back to him he just nodded and said “That’s how Lois was. After growing up in the depression, she never could break the habit of hiding her money. I will probably find even more envelopes throughout the house as time goes on.”
It made no sense to me at the time, how people could be so fearful that they would develop a lifelong habit of hoarding and hiding their money. I was only in my early twenties and had no knowledge of much of anything in life. But I get it now, and in the 20 years since I found Lois’ envelopes, I have heard many other similar stories from people who noticed the same similar money hoarding issue after their loved ones passed. People were genuinely fearful back then…deeply fearful to the point that even 75 years later, after all that had changed since the depression, they still couldn’t fully let go and trust the banks again, or trust that some terrible thing might happen that would cause them to lose all their money and go hungry again.
Now some might argue that people were smart not to trust the banks back in the depression and there may be some truth to that, but that fear was not making the problem any better. It was compounding the problem and taking over people’s thoughts and preventing people from considering solutions other than just “quit spending, hide your money, and panic.”
FDR knew this fear was making everything worse and taking over like a cancer. He knew that the longer people feared, the stronger their fear would become and it would be harder and harder to convince them to trust the banks and him again. So during his first Fireside Chat, where he would speak to Americans through the radio, he gave an amazing speech – which I think is one of the greatest speeches ever – with which he sought to reassure the American people and inspire them to let go of their fear and put their faith in him and their country and put their money back in the banks. And it worked. He found a way to get through the cloud of fear. He didn’t eliminate it, but he found a little tunnel through it, and he was able to tap into the common sense and courage of the American people. With both his Fireside Chat and in the famous quote from his inaugural address, I believe he found a very effective way to tell the people of this country:
“Do not fear what lies ahead. Keep your wits about you and approach your problems with a calm, steady mind because nothing can be worse than the damage that can be caused by your own fearful imagination. Real problems can be managed, somehow, some way as long as they are not contaminated and magnified by the contagious, germs of fear.”
It is a powerful message and I believe it to be true.
As a person living with anxiety and OCD, I know firsthand the power of fear.
I have lived with it my entire life and there have been times when that fear has been compounded by mental exhaustion and stress and I have allowed it to take over and strip me of my common sense and clear thinking. During these times, I have believed and done things that the person I am now can’t believe I believed I did, if that makes sense. I have obsessed over things, altered my behaviors, made a fool of myself on more than one occasion, and panicked away many a perfectly fine afternoon because of fear. And it took me a long time to learn that fear didn’t take over without my permission.
It took me years and years of looking inside myself and educating myself about anxiety to finally understand that my fear wasn’t there because of my disorders. My disorders were there, in some part, due to my fear. Once I learned this and devoted my time to learning to manage my fear and rein it in, my life started getting better. I started to feel like “me” again – only a better version of me.
Let’s be honest…none of us with anxiety will ever be without fear. That is just not how we are wired. But we do not have to dance with it every time it extends a hand to us.
We can acknowledge that fear is something we feel, without making it the most important feeling we have.
We can hear the voice of worry and quietly talk our way through it without the winds of fear coming in and sweeping our thoughts into a cyclone. It is okay to let trust and determination, common sense, faith, inner strength, or humor be louder than our fear. It is okay to acknowledge our fear and say “Yes, you are there. I see you. I feel you. But I have to stay in charge here, not you, or things could really get out of hand.”
Recognizing when fear is taking over and standing up to it and learning to control it is something that you grow into.
It is not a decision that those of us with anxiety disorders and OCD can just snap our fingers and make. But look at this post as a little thought seed. Plant it somewhere in the back of your mind and tend to it every now and then and see if it eventually grows into one of the pieces of your own “anxiety puzzle”. Again, it took me years and years to figure this aspect of fear out for myself. It was a very slow evolution in my thinking and response patterns. But eventually this way of thinking did sink in and my thought patterns did change because of it and it changed my life.
One easy way to fertilize this seed you are planting in the back of your mind is to be aware of when fear is playing a role in your thoughts and actions. Those of us with anxiety disorders are often in a sort of “auto pilot fear mode”. To be afraid and to make choices and decisions and to act based upon our fear level is just what those of us with anxiety disorders automatically do……so much so that we often aren’t even aware how much our fear is influencing us.
Pay attention to what you are thinking throughout the day and to the choices you make and ask yourself “Is this really what I think? Is this what I really want to do? Or is this what my fear of being alone/being hurt/being unloved/something bad happening/ is coaxing me to think and do?” Often times, that simple awareness of how much of a role fear plays in your life can be enough to instigate new healthier reactions and thought patterns that will result in your making choices that you WANT, not simply the choices that you think will keep you safe.
I still feel fear. I still have anxiety and OCD issues. And I probably always will. But my life does not revolve around them anymore, because my life does not revolve around fear anymore. It plays a part in my life….but just a part. For the most part, I have learned to stay in control, therefore my life stays in control.
For information on how to harness the power of fear, see this article at Possibility of Change.