The Only Thing to Fear...

There is an elephant in the room. It has been with us for well over a year. A few weeks ago, I was a last minute "fill in" speaker at a lawyers' meeting and I named the elephant. Like the other elephant, death, that is always in the room, when I suggested that our economy's turmoil had led to rampant fear within our profession, I evoked a strong denial reaction.

Interestingly, the most vehement deniers were those most senior. Maybe their denial was intended to protect the younger lawyers from further negativity. But it had the opposite effect. No one is fooling anyone with groundless optimism.

In my practice, I visit a lot of law firms, talk to many lawyers and observe their office behaviors. Every day, I receive confirmation of the pervasiveness of this fear. Here are some telltale symptoms. There are a lot more closed attorney office doors. Attorneys are hiding out. They can't talk about what is taboo. They can't seek support if they can't raise the subject. So, they hide. Another symptom is staying away from the office. There are a lot more "out of office" meetings and there is a considerable uptick in "working from home."

I want to name the fear so that we can begin to deal with it. There is a tremendous amount that we can do about it. I know, because I've had to do it myself.

When I was 41, I was told by my then dermatologist that a lump in my back, which I had complained about for years, was a malignant melanoma, despite the fact that I was given the "all clear" six years previously. My doctor told me that he thought that I had two years to live. My wife and I had three children under the age of 9. And, at that point, I was hyperfocused on my career, which had been rocketing skyward for a number of years.

From the doctor's original prognosis to the time of surgery, six weeks transpired. I remember awakening almost every night somewhere between 1:30 and 2:30 a.m. to a feeling that I came to label dread. I don't recall my thoughts. Perhaps there were no thoughts, only a pending sense of doom. I would get up and remain awake for the balance of the night. There was really nothing for me to do. I was paralyzed.

Following the surgery, I was told that the tumor had been removed with "clear margins," indicating that the melanoma likely had not metastasized. But, that conclusion would ultimately not be known for about seven years. I felt that my death sentence had been commuted, but I never would look upon life in the same way again.

It has been 18 years now. I have had two subsequent melanomas, one very recently. Both were caught early and neither presented appreciable risk. But I have had to face fear and learn to live with it. In fact, I made a conscious choice to look it in the face when I chose to volunteer at the Laguna Honda Hospital hospice ward. I have been serving the dying there for almost five years.

So I'd like to give you my thoughts about fear, how to befriend it, how to transform it and, perhaps, how to take advantage of it.

Remember that fear is the name that we apply to an emotional state that arises from a combination of physical cues and a perception of the environment. Fear is a word, a label and a convention. In fact, the bodily state that we know as fear is extraordinarily similar to the state of other emotions such as anger or excitement. At bottom, fear is a form of energy that is ours to transform.

Fear can make you stupid. The part of the brain that triggers fear is rather primitive. It hijacks the thinking part of our brain and denies us access to alternative perspectives that would quell fear's disturbance. The longer the conscious mind remains hijacked by fear, the more dysfunctional we become. You know you are hijacked when you can't think clearly or you can't remember things that were at your fingertips only recently. Are simple things taking you longer to do? Do you look at a document and find yourself confused or distracted? Those are characteristics of a hijacking.

You can transform this energy. In his book "Deep Survival - Who Lives, Who Dies and Why," Laurence Gonzales analyzes outdoor recreation accidents, in an effort to understand the stuff of which survivors are made. Gonzales notes "to my surprise I found an eerie uniformity in the way people survive seemingly impossible circumstances." Gonzales confirms that in an initial crisis, survivors do not allow themselves to be ruled by fear. Rather, they make use of it. Their fear, almost alchemically, turns to anger. Anger motivates survivors and makes them feel sharper.

Ensconced in our offices, we are not clinging to a snowy escarpment or lost in a steamy jungle. Transforming fear into anger may not prove effective, or even necessary. But you do need to move beyond fear to an awareness of your situation in order to reengage higher functioning mental processes. Breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, Tai Chi or Qi Gong, all create quiet mental space from which awareness can arise. Each of these requires discipline. They are not an overnight fix. But any of these practices will serve you not only in the short term (getting through this crisis), but will build up your immunity from crises to come.

You have to get out of the box. Shortly after receiving my original melanoma prognosis, my eldest daughter turned 9. I attended her birthday party at the San Mateo County Fair. I watched her and her friends running with excitement and joy from one amusement to another and felt, with gut-wrenching sadness, how much of her joy I had missed by so heavily indulging my career. What was my career for, if it alienated me from my own family?

One of the great surprises to me in coaching has been to discover how few of us have actually examined the question, "What is my life's purpose?" The absence of an answer explains much of the misery we experience. Sure, the economy is bad. Perhaps your career is at risk. But is that really all you are here for? If you no longer were successful in this career or if you lost your professional perks, would you have no remaining purpose? For me, fear was transformed, not by anger but by a focus on my quest to find that purpose. And remarkably, I found it.

Four items that you have to attend to in transforming fear:

You have to get to know your body intimately. You have be aware of how it is doing. This is not the same as being in shape, although exercise is critical. It is about the fact that patterns of behavior, including emotional responses, are embedded in your body. All your good mental work can be undone by embedded physical behaviors or states. As you get to know your body, you can detect and subdue these patterns. I practice yoga, Qi Gong and conscious embodiment for this awareness.

Since negative experiences are more central to survival, they trump positive ones. The only way out of this bind is to spend as much time in joy as possible. If you have trouble figuring out how to have a joyous experience, think what that tells you. Fun - and lots of it - are good for you.

You have loved ones, friends and communities that nourish you. Spend time in their company. Stay away from relationships that are toxic.

Gonzales notes that "survivors are always doing what they do for someone else, even if that someone else is thousands of miles away." Psychologist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl argued, "If one cannot change a situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude." Doing for others makes that shift possible. It is hard to stay in fear if you dedicate yourself to others. Don't write checks. Do service. Let people know that you see them and hear them. And, above all, learn to care compassionately for yourself.

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