A Few Words on Fear

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


Everyone’s friend and counsellor, Oprah Winfrey, says that we all operate out of just two emotions, love and fear.

Maybe one day I’ll be able to offer up some brilliant insights about love. Or maybe not, but I am definitely qualified to talk about the fear thing.

Oprah is, of course trying to change the world, en masse, and also one person at a time, and good for her. She knows that if we all choose fear as our ‘base case’, there are dark times coming. I wish her every success.

I have humbler goals. The comedienne Lily Tomlin had a great line: ‘We are all in this alone.’ That’s the soil I’m working here.

And I only have two points to make:

One day when I was forty, I remember this particular day like the day before yesterday, I got quite angry at someone close to me. Which happens from time to time with everyone, often reasonably - sometimes people do mean or stupid things to others. But this particular time was puzzling because, when I slowed down and thought about it, there was really no justifiable reason for me to be angry at all. I was being an idiot - even if the anger was still there. I chewed on that for a fair while, until I finally figured it out: I wasn’t angry because I was angry, I was angry because I was afraid. Simple as that. That’s when I realized that my fears might often be messing with me and directing my behaviour without me even knowing.

Like my chronically bad habit of cracking jokes at funerals. It can get awkward. Why would anyone do that? I think I get it now.

And then some years later I recognized that sometimes I become aware of my anxiety because my stomach is in knots - well before my conscious brain even knows there’s an issue. My subconscious recognizes the fear before my brain is willing to acknowledge it. What a strange way to live.

All I’m saying is that if I’d understood all this thirty or so years ago, it might have made things easier and I also might have been a nicer person. I think Oprah has it about right.

Now, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to always admit all your fears to others (actually, I’m dead sure it’s not), but it’s very important to at least acknowledge them to yourself, right?

Second point. I went to a business dinner in Edmonton a few years ago. It was only about twenty people, none of us knew each other very well, but everyone was a conventionally successful company leader well into middle age.

And somehow, I have no idea how, we got talking about meditation, and then we moved on to other ‘relaxation techniques’ – yoga, exercising, reading, etc. What we were keenly sharing ideas on, of course, was alternative ways of dealing with anxiety. I remember walking back to my hotel afterward thinking ‘Wow, that was weird’. But of course it wasn’t weird at all. Everyone thinks they are the only one who has anxieties; it might be very helpful to remember that everyone else does too – including everyone at your next meeting and everyone across the dinner table from you.

What to do?

The most brilliant ending to a speech that I ever heard came from David Johnson, Canada’s last Governor General. As he retired from the University of Waterloo to take up that post, I was fortunate enough to have dinner with him (along with about 2500 other people). Here is the final piece of advice he gave to all of us:

“Be nice to others, and go easy on yourself.”

So I’m trying. Thanks very much for reading.