Fearless compassion

A friend of mine recently started taking horseback riding lessons. I love watching her ride and seeing the unadulterated joy radiate from her when she is in the saddle. I recognize that feeling of exhilaration and freedom that comes from being atop a 1,000-pound animal, and the sense of wonder that they allow us to partner with them in this way. I see how she cherishes the partnership that she is beginning to develop with her horse. I resonate with her unbridled enthusiasm for all things horse-related as she begins her transformation into an equestrian. But most of all, I marvel at her fearlessness.

I have never been a fearless rider. Don’t get me wrong, there was a brief time in my life when I was more courageous in my equestrian endeavors—when going cross-country was not panic inducing, and jumping fences was a deliberate choice—but this was all done with the full awareness of an adrenalin-induced determination to overcome my fear. Somehow, I was encouraged to feel the fear and do it anyway, and this was seen as “A Good Thing.” Multiple falls and concussions later, I have learned to be kinder to myself and don’t see the need to push myself in the same way.

As I watch my friend tackle each new experience with such confidence, I wondered about my own trepidation. I had an “a-ha” moment when I recognized that this shows up not just in my horsemanship, but in all areas of my life where my sense of safety is challenged. The truth is, I was brought up to be fearful.

I was taught that the world is not a safe place. My mother’s refrain of “Be careful, you’ll hurt yourself,” was a constant reminder that I was not to be trusted in my bodily being and that danger lurked around every corner. In a caricature fashion, her advice to be always on the look out for crooks and swindlers, germs and diseases, devilish temptations, and the limitations of my physical being, coalesce into my hyper-vigilant, fearful, and amygdala-reactive way of being. This fear-based parenting has resulted in my embodied experience as one of continuously looking over my shoulder in case something might “get me.” My lived experience is often contrary to this embodied expectation, but somehow those fears have never completely been dispelled.

This leads me to wonder about the reasons behind the riots in Baltimore. Whoa—that was quite a curve ball! Didn’t see that coming? Probably because you weren’t looking over your shoulder. There’s an obvious link in there for those of us who are conditioned to be fearful.

I have had the privilege of living outside of the daily struggles that so many on the poverty line are faced with. I am not immersed within a culture steeped in hopelessness, oppression (internal and external), pain, and despair. I am privileged in so many ways because I have the choice to engage in the debate or not. Yet, even with that privilege, I hold in my body a sense of fear and paranoia that has been instilled in me through my own culture. I cannot imagine the level of fear that is ingrained into the lives of many Black Americans. But this fear is not just one sided. I also know good, honest, and hard working police officers and their families who are fearful of what they might encounter every day. With so much polarization on the topic of civil rights right now, it might help to find some compassion for both sides of the struggle and recognize the fear that forms the common ground.

Fear for one’s own physical safety is real for both police officers and people of color, particularly black men. This fear, when translated into a PTSD level of hyper-vigilance, can literally short-circuit the brain to function through a fight-or-flight survival mode. When this level of fear saturates a community, or has been carried through as inter-generational trauma, the impact is magnified. Why did Freddie Gray run? Probably because he was scared. Why are police more likely to shoot a black man? Probably because they’re scared. Not all police officers are trigger-happy and not all black men are criminals. They are, however, all human beings living within a culture of fear. Perhaps an understanding of that can help us to find compassion for both sides, because judgments of the riots and/or criticism of the police only leads to more polarization.

Now that I recognize the source of my fears, I am able to meet them with more compassion. I am not about to go out and jump a five-foot fence on my horse, but I am able to not give myself a hard time about being afraid. Whilst I may not ever reach the fearless abandon that my friend embodies, paradoxically, this acceptance actually eases my anxiety so that I am more able to meet new challenges. I am somewhat fearful writing this piece as I know what an emotive subject this is. Having been inspired by my fellow New Existentialist, Jason Dias, and his piece on writing as activism, I am putting it out there anyway, not as a solution to the problem, but as acknowledgement that there is hope for a less fearful way of being; a regaining of trust and confidence in myself and others through a fearlessly compassionate approach.

— Veronica Lac

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