Fear of the unknown


“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

A recent sports story involving Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel intrigues me. The key parts of the story are, as I understand them:

  1. he was notified a year ago that some of his players, including the team’s star quarterback. may have violated NCAA rules by selling their team-related memorabilia
  2. he chose at that time not to report what he had been told or to otherwise act on it, perhaps because he feared the players would be suspended, undermining a season in which many were predicting Ohio State would win the national title
  3. the possible violations were ultimately revealed and the players were suspended for several games, at which time he claimed not to have been previously aware of the situation, and
  4. more recently the whole story came to light, Tressel was fined and suspended by Ohio State, and likely faces additional fines and suspension from the NCAA.

I don’t pretend to understand why Jim Tressel chose not to pass that initial tip along to Ohio State’s compliance officer right away, but the situation has the ring of familiarity. Who knows what the effect on the team’s chances might have been if Tressel had reported what he knew right away? It is certain, however, that the ramifications would have been far less than they will ultimately be—a multi-game suspension and $250,000 fine for Tressel, both of which will likely be augmented by the NCAA, and possibly sanctions for the university itself (voided wins, lost scholarships, and so on). The delusion that this potentially bad situation would simply disappear if he ignored it has already cost Tressel over a quarter of a million dollars of his own money (when you factor in lost salary during the suspension) and his reputation.

How many times do we choose to ignore potentially bad news because we are afraid of what we may find out if we acknowledge it? The simple answer, I think, is “a lot.” Maybe everyday.

Warning signs flash all around us—a rattling in our car, a pain in a limb, constant fatigue, a child’s declining grades. All too often, my inclination is to look away and hope that, when my attention drifts back in that direction, the offending omens will have vanished. But they almost never do. The rattling becomes a seized engine. The pain becomes a heart attack. The fatigue becomes metastatic cancer. The falling grades become an arrest for under-age drinking.

I knew someone who, for years and years, hardly ever went to the doctor. He had a relatively minor ailment that he was scared was something very serious, and refused to discuss it with his doctor. Then he was rushed to the hospital in pain and, in the span of one weekend, he was gone. Turns out, had he received treatment for the ailment any time in the last few years, he would still be alive. He feared that he might be seriously ill, and in fear he tried to hide from his imagined illness.

Worse yet, I think I had an inkling that he was ill, and said nothing. Maybe I was hoping it would just go away, afraid to find out that he might be sick; that if I asked, then he might tell me he was dying.

Pema Chödrön is so wonderfully reassuring on this topic, her most recent book being Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears. As did her teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Pema speaks of awakening bodhicitta and becoming “warriors of nonaggression who hear the cries of the world.” Bodhicitta (or bodhichitta), as I understand it, is tantamount to our inherent ability to love, our deep-seated need to love in order to realize our Buddha nature, our overpowering compassion for all living beings. Bodhicitta is at the heart of the bodhisattva way of life, a life devoted to achieving enlightenment in order to ease the suffering of others.

In Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion, Pema writes: “A warrior accepts that we can never know what will happen to us next. We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty.”

In other words, hiding is a delusion; it is not actually possible. When we try to hide, we do not manage to avoid contact with illness, accidents, discomfort, painful emotions, or unpleasant situations.

The only things we actually avoid—in the process of trying to hide from our fear—are opportunities to show love and compassion to others, the kind of contact we most desperately need.


3 responses »

  1. I love how you write and am very interested in your observations. But in the case of your friend who never went to the doctor and died suddenly, I don’t understand how that certain tragedy in the big picture. We all die. For him to go quickly may have been the kindest way, rather that going through perhaps long and painful medical procedures. I certainly don’t think there was anything less than loving for you to not press him on this. Sometimes recognizing friends problems and ignoring them is kindness, too.

    • Thank you, Lynda. I don’t disagree with you. Change, including death, is inevitable. My point was that my friend would be alive today if his fear of what might be hadn’t kept him from getting what would have been a very simple procedure.

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