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Everyone is afraid.

I can’t remember the exact quote or even find it – which is weird because I take and keep a whole lot of notes.

But I was reading something about the military and their discipline, and the topic of fear came up. The author quoted a higher-up in the military (I know these exact details really make this story come alive, don’t they?), who said something to the effect of, “Everyone is scared of war and of dying. The measure of a strong man isn’t someone who has no fear, it’s someone who is brave enough to do the thing anyway.”

That’s a terrible paraphrase, but you get the idea.

Everyone from FDR to Nelson Mandela to Emma Watson (?) has been quoted as saying, “Bravery is not the absence of fear.”

In my efforts to search for this quote on Google, I came across a Quora question about how soldiers are able to fight without being afraid of dying.

A former paratrooper opened up with a very straightforward answer: “I’ve never seen a soldier on the battlefield who wasn’t afraid of dying. Some are more afraid than others, but aside from psychopaths and idiots, everyone is scared.”

Why is fear on my mind?

My 5-year old son is in the middle of a weeks-long panic attack.

You see, tonight is his preschool Christmas program at our church. He’ll get up in front with his classmates and join in singing and recitations telling about the birth of Jesus.

At least, that’s the idea.

As a parent, I’ve been waiting anxiously for this. Last Sunday morning in church, he sang Silent Night at the top of his lungs from memory. He would crush it in a Christmas program.

Except he’s completely terrified by the prospect of standing in front of people.

Just the mention of the Christmas program sends him into a 10-15 minute barrage of tears and hugs. He doesn’t think he can do it. His teacher has moved him to the back of the group in hopes that he’ll feel a little safer up there, but it’s definitely going to be an issue.

When he woke up this morning, he was already freaking out about tonight’s program.

My attempt to handle his fear

My son embarrasses very easily, and if he feels that people are watching him, he clams up. He gets that from me – I was a very self-conscious little boy myself.

So when I came downstairs to make breakfast, I had him sit on my lap, and I asked him what he was afraid of.

His two issues?

  1. That people would be watching him.
  2. That everyone else would get sick and he would be the only one up there.

Number Two was pretty easy to tackle.

But Number One was a little more complicated. Obviously, people would watch him.

I explained to him that everyone would be there to see their own kids. So (his classmate) Emily’s parents would be there to watch Emily, not him. Same for CC’s parents and Thea’s parents and all the others. Nobody was there to watch him (not quite true, but you get what I’m going for).

Next, I told him that the key to not being watched is to blend in. If all the other kids are standing and reciting Luke 2, and he was crying or not saying anything, he wouldn’t blend in. People would watch him. He had to at least look like he was participating so that nobody would pay attention to him.

Finally, I told him I didn’t care if he said the recitations or sang along with the songs – all he had to do was move his lips. Over and over throughout the morning, I got him to say that he would move his lips. That was going to be his focus.

After all of that, he seemed to calm down and feel a little better about it.

What do you do when you’re crippled with fear?

“JUST DO IT” is macho nonsense.

Yes, there is a sense that you should do the thing anyway. I’m not advocating that we ignore it. But sometimes you can’t just power through.

To hack through my boy’s fears and get him down to something he could process, I followed a few guidelines that I think we all could keep in mind during scary times:

  • I made sure he knew his fear was acknowledged and okay. Like every military source I can find, fear exists in everybody. There’s no avoiding it or getting rid of it. It’s okay to be scared. I wanted Jack to feel like his fears were being heard just so that he wouldn’t beat himself up over them. That wouldn’t be productive.
  • I dug down into the source of the fear. “I’m scared to do the Christmas program” doesn’t tell me anything. I asked “Why?” a bunch of times to him until I could get into, really, the deep-down point of the fear. He was afraid of being singled out and watched. That’s something we can address.
  • I explained why that fear was unlikely to become reality. Most of our fears are rooted in misconceptions or exaggerations, right? Being logical doesn’t eliminate fear, but it helps to keep it a little more under control.
  • I gave him ONE THING to focus on. “Just move your lips”. That’s it. If he can go up there in front of everyone and move his lips, I will likely cry with pride. It’s so easy to take a 10,000-foot view of your fears and all the horrible things that can go wrong. Often, it’s very effective to just zero in on one thing you can do to address the worst of it. If Jack focuses on moving his lips, he’ll blend in and nobody will pay attention to him (except for his parents and grandparents, of course). That’s all he has to do to feel better up there. What’s one thing you can do to face your fear without focusing on ALL OF IT AT ONCE?

Listen, I have zero clue how tonight is going to go. He seemed like he had a handle on it. But anyone with parents knows that it could all collapse in a heartbeat. This could be an abject failure.

But that’s because he’s five years old.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably not five. But you do have fears. If you find yourself spiraling out of control with panic, see if you can just take a few deep, calming breaths and focus on the steps above to get you to it or get you through it.

Conquering fear isn’t easy, but it’s not complicated either. You have the tools to do it, you just have to use them.