“Journey to Fearlessness” By Jim Surkamp (1186 words)

The Journey to Fearlessness
copyright, 2002, James Surkamp

(In this article I focus, for greater clarity, on just deaths by illness of an older person with blameless medical and personal support. Murders, drunk-driver deaths do have many, many other real issues beyond the death itself).

A death makes us face the frightening Unknown, which surrounds us in life and awaits us in Death.

Repeatedly face your deepest fears and they lose their sting. The most enslaving fears are of the Unknown, a painful death alone, being forgotten, and the horror that life includes. How do we accept life’s horrors with equanimity and grace?

The Dalai Lama, when asked why he could smile so much in a world full of famine and pain, smiled: “What do you suggest?”

The experienced and wise would also reply: “I have felt every fear I once feared. I am free.” They have conquered fear when they say: “Don’t sweat the small stuff and almost everything is the small stuff.” “All that matters in the end is that you have been well-loved and loved well;” and “You have to learn to take the good with the bad.” The Serenity Prayer is the very badge of earned fearlessness.

Ted Hughes, the now deceased poet laureate of England, mirrored my own struggle with the Angel of Darkness. I was young, with my mother dying, my father just back from Vietnam. I inched blindly toward knowledge:

“Water wanted to live. It went to the trees, they burned.
It came weeping back. They rotted. It came weeping back. Water wanted to live. It went
flowers. They crumpled. It came weeping back. It wanted to live. It
went to
the womb; it met blood. It came weeping back. It went to the womb.
It met
knife. It came weeping back. It went to the womb. It met maggot and
rotteness. It came weeping back. It wanted to die. It went through
the stone
door. It came weeping back. It went searching through all space for
nothingess. It came weeping back. It wanted to die. Till it had no
left. It lay at the bottom of all things. Utterly worn out, utterly

Like Mister Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness,” one goes
to the
heart of darkness, faces “the horror” and goes beyond it to personal
glory and
redemption – fear-free.

And nothing launches us on this journey for truth more surely than the
blow of a loved one’s death. “Kindergarten Values” implode.

Editor and Dr. Charles Figley’s masterful two-volume “In the Wake of
explores “the illusion of invulnerability” – the notion ingrained from
kindergarten and before that, if we are on time, cheerful, honest and
hard-working, then we are entitled to be happy.

Renown Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hahn scoffs. He says if you seek
on the outside, saying “IF I do this-or-that, THEN I will be happy” -
you will
not find happiness. “You must get in touch with the ultimate dimension
of your
being instead,” he says.

The “if/then” crowd are the Inexperienced; a death loss changes that.

Even C.S. Lewis appears to have sought to defang his fear of death by
to render it a mere topic for discourse. When his beloved wife died,
he wrote
in “A Grief Observed” that he didn’t know grief is so much like fear.
about life and death to master and control them didn’t lessen his pain
all-conquering death exploded in his own home.

Ever illusion-less George Orwell, by contrast, wrote for the wise and
experienced: “Being human is being prepared to in the end be defeated
broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s
love upon
other human individuals.”

A conceited outlook based on entitlement deems misfortune as
punishment aimed
at the unworthy. The Inexperienced seem to need to assign blame to
prove the
world is just, rational, and controllable.
An Inexperienced widow or widower concludes their husband or wife died
someone didn’t do their job: the spouse didn’t do enough, the doctor
didn’t do
enough, or God didn’t do enough.

Obsessed and alarmed, they ask: “Why me?” Or play the never-ending
game. Parents, especially mothers, of those who die young, easily do
because of their many years of habitual fearing for their children’s
One woman in my support group blamed heself for her son’s murder in
Angeles after he tried to stop a gang from stealing a truck. She said:
“I knew
something bad would happen the day I said goodbye to him at the
airport.” It
was just her general fear of the Unknown which she later reshaped into
lifetime supply of self-blame.

The Inexperienced can’t accept that like birth, death, in the most
ways, is as natural as a snowstorm and just as blind.
You have to think you are the center of the Universe to think tragedy
personally addressed to you.

Typically the Inexperienced soberly concludes: “If God lets this kind
of thing
happen, I don’t want that God.” Consider instead Etty Hillesum,
writing her
great work “An Interrupted Life,” as the Nazi SS approached her
apartment flat
in Amsterdam: “I have found that God is not accountable to us.”

We can drain this swamp of fear by meditating on the painful
simplicity of
death, that the only place our decisions have any dominion is the here
now, and that the only sanctuary we have is in our mind. But it
needs to be fumigated.

We learn from the greatest people among us such as Mother Theresa, the
Lama, and Thich Nhat Hahn. Each urges us to love and live, here and
now, not
sweating the small stuff.

Thich Nhat Hahn had been leading efforts to rebuild bombed villages
during the
Vietnam war. A village was leveled for the fourth time. He buried his
face in
his hands. To a concerned friend, he said “I am breathing on my
anger. I am
taking care of it.”

Mother Theresa dismisses “Why’s” and inaction: “People are
illogical and self centered – Love them anyway. If you do good,
people will
accuse you of selfish ulterior motives, do good anyway. If you are
successful, you win false friends and true enemies – succeed anyway.
The good
you do today will be forgotten tomorrow – do good anyway. Honesty and
frankness make you vulnerable – be honest and frank anyway.”

The Griever of death focusses on each day as it comes, building a
sense of control and dominion, fed by love and hope.

Keeping grief from panicking, running throughout the Universe for
reasons is
the first step. If we are willing to go “through the stone door,” time
all remaining steps for us. And grief from death will relax into

“It went searching through all space for nothingness, till it had no
left. It lay at the bottom of all things. Utterly worn out, utterly

Mastering fear is to accept the horror constructively making the
known, so it doesn’t become a wicked undertow to the sparkling and
flow of life.