“Fear impels us to survive, and love enables us to thrive.”
Dr. Dan Baker, from What Happy People Know, with Cameron Stauth
We talked last week about fear’s great power, due to the construction of the brain. Baker feels there is only one power strong enough to overcome fear, what he calls the only other basic human feeling: love.
If you’re feeling any lack of love in your life, like I felt when my first husband Hugh’s death blasted a huge hole through my heart, a sure-fire way to reignite it is through giving back. Baker calls it “the purest form of appreciation”. Stumbling and bumbling through grief as other obstacles piled up around me, I noticed a perceptible shift in how I felt, a lightness of being, when I decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro for Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Why? Well, I’d been so focused on me and all of my troubles, there was immense relief at getting outside of myself and raising funds for a child with a life-threatening illness, so that he or she could enjoy a wish, any wish. I mean, if a child’s future becomes questionable, why shouldn’t that child at least get a wish? A fun break from the trauma of surgeries and medications? I thought about what it would be like to have a seriously ill child: the disrupted home life, hospital stays, treatment, fear in the child’s eyes, fear in the spouse’s eyes. Wow. I’d been so lucky to have raised three healthy children.
Baker explains altruism this way: “Doing something good feels good, in and of itself. It awakens your love and bonds you with other people. When this bond is formed, it not only gives you a better feeling about the person you’re helping, but about all people in general. Whatever mistrust you may have had about the human race is diminished. You feel less fear.”
The mistrust I was feeling at the time wasn’t so much about the human race, but life itself. Being told your mountain of a man dropped dead within seconds for no apparent reason – a slight electronic hiccup of the heart? – can suddenly make you suspect about getting another breath, and then another, and then another. Expand that to see the slim thread your children, then every other loved one, hangs on by daily and you can just imagine the anxious mess I was in. Anyone, anywhere, could drop dead, at any moment.
Focusing on something positive – the mountain climb, fundraising for it – opened me up to flipping the message in Hugh’s death. Life is fragile. And precious. Embrace each moment. God knows, Hugh did. And thank God he did. There’s only so much time. I have to get my shit together! Stat.
You see, I thought I would die without the power of Hugh’s love, but what I was forgetting – because it had been so jolted by his death – was the vast power of the love trapped within my own still-beating heart. Doing charity work cracked the chilly vault, a bit of love-light slipped out. And once love starts? Whoa. Watch out.
Here’s something Baker writes that I hadn’t considered before: “In the final analysis, you can’t really feel someone else loving you. That love is their experience, not yours. You can only feel it when you love them. That feeling is yours. It’s the best feeling in the world, and it’s the one feeling that can always defeat your fear and make you happy.”
Baker shares his experience of losing a son, shortly after birth, to a rare illness. After a long time, Baker realized that he actually felt better, not worse, when he summoned as much love as he possibly could for his dead child. I find this immensely freeing and healing. Although Hugh is no longer here to love me, I can continue, for the rest of my life, enjoying this warm and wonderful love for him in my heart. Just thinking about it makes me picture this old heart of mine. Are there still any tattered bits fluttering in there? From loss? From hurt? Like the ragged edges of a wind-torn flag? Feeling love rush up, pour out – for Hugh, his mom and dad, my mom and dad, a nephew gone to soon, others lost along the way – I see, feel, how love can fill in the empty spaces, mend ripped seams I once thought irreparable.
As I’ve pointed out before, I’m a hopeless romantic, a lover of rom-coms. For me, there is nothing better than watching a couple like Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper – let’s face it, they are pleasing to look at – fall in love and live happily-ever-after. Consider this, though: is it necessary, even feasible, that each love the other in the exact same amount?
Says Baker: “When I was young, I once complained to my mom that a woman I was head over heels in love with didn’t feel as strongly about me. I’ve always remembered what she said. She told me that no two people ever love each other the same – and that whoever loves the most is the lucky one.”
Be the lucky one. Love lots and love the most-est. A heart brimming with love has little room for hatred and, in turn, creates unique ways to manage fear.