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Facing Fear

I take a deep breath and prepare to do the impossible. Even in planning for this moment it seemed like it would never get here. I’m standing in front of a room full of teenagers I’ve spent the better part of the last year getting to know. They live in a group home and just last week we put on a prom for them since they are mostly enrolled in an on-campus school.

“I have something I need to talk with you all about” I say, trying to steel myself.

“Oh my gosh, did someone else die” I hear one of the girls interject after a gasp. A storm of other questions began to build in the minds of the kids.

Just two months ago I stood in almost this same spot and told this same group that one of their beloved teachers and mentors had passed away. That was two days before Valentine’s Day.

“In one month, the group home will be closing” I answer, yielding to the flurry of questions growing tenfold in the face of the news. To help quell the tempest of doubt I clarify “It isn’t any one’s fault and it isn’t going to help us to speculate why it’s closing”.

With the most pressing question of blame answered and with a brief pause to let reality begin to set in I’m met with:

“You mean I have to leave my friends?”

“Where will I go?”

“This place is like my home and you all are like my family…”

It was easy in that moment, unlike so many moments before and afterwards to put aside questions of my own. Questions about if I would have to leave my friends, where I would go, and the same thought about this being like a second home, like family for me as well.

When I’m asked to think about the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, this is the moment that comes to mind. It felt a little like being a martyr, sent to die for some noble cause. I used to tell stories about all the hardest stories I’d heard working in foster care, those were stories about anger, violence, and danger. All of those seemed somehow so much less in the face of this other feeling, the feeling of fear.

I remember even then, sharing with the kids one of my favorite stories about mindfulness, about the nature of goodness and hope in the face of fear. The story is about imagining what it would be like to be stranded away from earth and for your only desire to be back here on the planet, in this moment. It’s a story that highlights how in this moment we can still find something useful, even if we know there are darker times ahead. It’s about finding joy, it’s about facing fear.

One undeniable fact about life is that bad things happen. The converse is also true, life is where good things happen too. No matter how hard we try, individually or collectively, we’ll never be able to eliminate the presence of these bad things. You can read any story written in the history of humankind and find some elements of this. The best parts of humans trying to push away the darkness of life.

Despite the fact that darkness still exists, we often believe that we can somehow avoid it. In the moments of the most heartbreak, we resolve to never love again. In the moments of the most vulnerability, we clam up and build walls. “I will never be made to feel this way again”. What we don’t see is that when we do this we also shut out all the good. We pull away from life in all of its beauty and all of its horror.

Sometimes we busy ourselves with other things and let ourselves be pulled away from life and our feelings. We prefer to be distracted or numb because feeling less seems like it will solve our problems.

The truth is that our highest highs and our lowest lows often occupy the same space. Where we feel the most engaged and the most uplifted are the same places that we encounter crushing defeats. Avoiding one comes at the cost of avoiding the other.

I think in large part its understanding that the stories we tell ourselves about our past losses and future misfortunes are exactly that, a story. Many of us sit in front of screens playing out the most heartbreaking stories imaginable as entertainment. A sad movie or television show playing in front of us helps us distract ourselves and only minutes or hours later we’re able to leave it behind.

We instinctively know that the images on the screen are just that, images or memories. That isn’t to say that these imagines or memories don’t cause us pain or difficult emotions, but we know that they don’t have to come with us into the rest of our lives. We don’t have to continue responding to old events, or even responding to new events as if they are the same as these older memories.

When we understand that life is full of these moments, both sad and happy, we can choose to look for the good in any individual moment instead of going back in time to sad memories or forward in time, anticipating them in the future.

That final month of time at the group home was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was hard because I knew both how much it was going to hurt, and it was also hard because I knew all the good that we could do. It felt like somehow being trapped in the best moment of my life and never wanting to leave and knowing that it would become one of the saddest moments of my life. It felt like a place I wanted to stay forever and a place I never wanted to go back to.

It will forever be a memory that brings me sadness. But it will also forever be a moment that brings me feelings of joy. That is in no small part because I worked with all my power to fill that last month with as many joyous moments as I could. It was because at each opportunity I looked for the goodness in each moment instead of running from the feelings of sadness that came with them. So often, a fear of sadness and of loss can turn into a fear of the things that bring us happiness as well.

This can become even more crippling when trying to run away from life doesn’t work. We can end up feeling stuck, bitter, jaded, and resentful. It can seem monumentally difficult to take the steps required to face difficulty and start showing up for life again. If you or someone you know is struggling with finding beauty and happiness in life, I hope you’ll find the bravery to encourage that person to talk to someone and start working with a licensed therapist or other mental health professional to get back in touch with the good things in life. I’m not promising it will be easy or make all life’s troubles disappear, but I certainly think that it’s better than living our lives in fear.

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