The Indo-European root of the word “fear” is one of the variations of “per-“. Growing from that root, along with words having to do with fear, there is also the word “reverence”. Perhaps the last vestige of the link of reverence to fear in our time is the phrase “fear of God”, implying awe. It makes me wonder if fear and reverence are two sides of the same coin, opposites held in tension in the psyche. Noticing what we fear might also tell us something about what we revere (and vice versa). Fear and reverence both acknowledge the power of something.
Fear often has a physical component, linking psyche and body. When we sense danger, our lower brain kicks in, adrenaline flows and our bodies want to fight or run. Fear in a dream often wakes us up, literally. Fearful dream images give us a chance, through active imagination or art or writing, to find out what the fear wants – to what does it want to draw our attention?
I am remembering a dream in which the dreamer was on a landing, caught between wanting to go to the basement to follow someone and waiting for someone upstairs. The dreamer felt paralyzed by fear in the dream, believing the person in the basement was in danger but feeling unable to move. As the dreamer worked with the dream in active imagination, the dreamer was able to walk down the stairs, out of the grip of the fear, and then help the person in the basement with a task that signaled an end of something. This work with the dream led from fear to reverence. (I am making the details sketchy, and have the dreamer’s permission to share it.)
By working with the dream in active imagination, the dreamer was able to explore what the fear was about and experience the lessening of its power as the dreamer took action. That would not always be what fear wants, but it seemed to be in this case. Fear is universally felt but individual in its meaning. As individuals, accepting the work of bearing fear, working with frightening images that come to us and holding the tension between fear and reverence is a worthy task on its own, and might help to ease the burden of fear in the collective.
Fears follow this developmental path in children and youth:
1. Fear of the unknown – mitigated by curiosity
2. Fear of being alone – mitigated by bonded relationships
3. Fear about the body (fear of haircuts, going down the drain, injuries)
4. Fear about the self – am I worthy? Am I normal? Am I enough?
5. Fear of the voice of conscience – Am I ethical? Is this right?
These fears emerge in children as they develop the cognitive and emotional capacity to feel and name them. For the rest of our lives, events both inner and outer can precipitate one or more of these fears again. By attending to the images that accompany fear we can discover the fear’s meaning for us now.