“Fear eats the soul” and nourishes the I

Wolf-Ulrich Klünker

Fear at the limit

Fear is the earthly means by which the I can develop: “In the world ye shall have tribulation …; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Thus the I can pass beyond fear. The common saying that courage is not never being afraid but overcoming fear can be understood in the same way.

Psychoanalysis, following on from Freud, refers to the joke with regard to the boundaries of the I: the joke in its logic initially calls these boundaries of the I into question and thus triggers a slight fear of which there is only an awareness under the surface; if we have understood the punch line at the end, the boundaries of the I are restored and reaffirmed within logical “normality”. Such resolution of this slight fear produces relief which comes to expression in laughter.

Looked at in greater detail, fear can be considered to be an expression of the I as it comes into contact with its own spiritual threshold. A certain form of fear is a symptom of spiritual reality knocking at the boundaries of our familiar experience of the I. The increase in anxiety disorders might be an indication individually and culturally of the necessity of an enforced development of the I in the contact with our own spiritual identity. Contrary to the cultural and psychotherapeutic ideas about folklore, we should consider that individualisation as the development of the I in the twenty-first century assumes the spiritual encounter with the boundary of our I and thus cannot occur without fear.

Fear as the experience of the I at the threshold can be seen as a means of bringing the existence of the I into a healthy and developmentally supportive self-regulation at the boundary between the physical and spiritual world. In this way the I works at its own developmental and constitutional conditions. A life without fear would forego the self-regulation of the I at the threshold.

Call of the future

Fear not only arises within situations but also in advance of future situations. A solution in the sense of “freedom from fear” thus often remains an illusory goal, also therapeutically. In order to understand and overcome fear, we need to see the larger context. This also includes (up to an including therapeutic procedures) qualifying the question where in the past the cause for the anxiety might lie. The “where from” often has to turn into a “where to”: where does fear point, what does it indicate? What has become of it or what might it become? Every reality consists of past, present and future and often the cause does not lie in the past but in the future – in what it is to develop into. Psychological thinking needs to be extended in this respect, also in the way it touches on our own existence.

The reality of the present arises at the point where past and future touch; and in precisely this situation, between what was and what is going to be, the I experiences itself – and in doing so develops a sensitivity for the fear which arises when developmental causes from the future knock on the door. The demands that learning should be free of fear reflect this situation also in the context of childhood and school. Without fear must not mean that the openness towards the future is avoided but that trust is built up towards the situation in life which I am not yet in and which is to be prepared through learning for the (open) future.

Fear as a cultural symptom

The tribulation in the world to which John’s Gospel refers points to existence in a body. Physical existence can become cramped, can compress the I into a point up to an including a feeling of being locked up and of anxiety. After Lazarus has been raised, Christ says in John’s Gospel: “Loose him, and let him go” (John 11: 44). Such loosening or deliverance, the ability properly to move again, often depends on a change in the breathing. From a physical perspective, fear is a breathing problem for breathing takes place precisely at the boundary between soul-spiritual and physical existence.

Freeing ourselves from fear as a rule means learning to breathe differently. But not through the arbitrary regulation of the breathing  but through a new form of thinking and experience which indirectly changes the breathing and thus has a health-giving effect on the whole of the organism – because now I can better “oxidise” the world and the other person.

The problem of fear in the present possesses a dimension of cultural history and history of science which negatively affects the “oxidisation” of the world. In this tradition the world outside is represented as “objective” and my cognition and experience of this “objective” world as merely “subjective”. An older conviction has been almost completely lost in scientific thinking, but also in everyday life: that reality presupposes my relationship with the world, that is my interest, my intentions and my cognition. My relationship with another person is similarly governed. Neither they nor I are “objective” and we are not just “subjective” either but become such that we can encounter one another. That applies in particular measure in the relationship with children and young people.

If I experience the world outside as “objective” but my consciousness only as “subjective”, then I am locked up inside myself, isolated, without any influence on the whole. Such an attitude to life and to cognition must, in the medium term, trigger anxiety, depression and isolation up to and including feelings similar to autism.

Educational and therapeutic counter-measures always point towards embedding the I in our thinking and experience as a constitutive force in reality. This allows us to open up new spaces of experience of the I. The individuality then enters a space which is experienced as filled with reality, linking it with the world again. The contrast between subjective and objective is cancelled out.

If we do not succeed in entering such spaces in our experience, then the I increasingly must feel itself as being locked up at the centre of its own physicality, that it can no longer count its environment, its periphery as being part of itself: an I which is merely a point, without space, but also without a skin and everywhere oversensitive. Here it also becomes clear that it is not the point-like situation of fear which represents the actual problem but the surrounding space and what follows as a result. Fear can be compared with feeling cold: the feeling of coldness becomes particularly bad when there is no prospect of warming up.

When we wake up, fear vanishes

One of the most effective illusions of the twentieth century is the view that problems can and must be solved. Here we lose sight of the fact that problems and situations in life often cannot be resolved. And from this perspective the experience is frequently overlooked that a change in the way we see things does not always resolve the difficulty but can make it disappear and cancel out its importance. This does not mean some kind of irrational “positive” thinking or to whitewash problems but a real situational change which occurs when I awaken within myself in my thinking and experience.

This also includes a recognition of the importance of the experience of being able to feel empathy coming from another person. The fear of the future and new tasks is resolved when I can have a sense that another can also experience my encounter with the world. As a rule it is not even necessary to talk with the person concerned about the current situation; I merely have to be able to experience their empathy. We are therefore dealing with the fundamental certainty that this type of human intersubjectivity is the basis of my own reality and the reality of the world. Ultimately it indeed has to be said that the “objectivity” of reality is dependent on the “subjectivity” of such an interpersonal background to life.

What we have said so far suggests that a new understanding of the feelings is necessary to overcome fear. As a first step, our attitude to life should free itself from the already mentioned misconception that the present develops out of the past. The future loses its efficacy in the present as a result of such problematical thinking and the present appears only as an extension of the past. In such experience every contact with the future – which by its nature is undefined, unforeseeable and unpredictable – must trigger fear.

On the other hand we can feel fear dissipating when we follow our intentions which we may not even be able to justify fully at the time. Their justification is only revealed when I follow them, that is in the future where they are prepared. This can lead to the experience that our feelings and intent are not just trapped within ourselves but can gain traction in the world.

Thus the foundations of scientific thinking about the human being, and particularly of psychology, also have to be worked on to overcome stress, anguish and anxiety – or more important still: to prevent them. The power to overcome and prevent fear – not its denial or repression – also lies in the certainty of a “thereafter”.

A psychology which includes the future can show that there is always a “thereafter”; that the reference to our own will can become a support even if current experience is marked by hopelessness. As a consequence it is not the momentary situation we experience but the individual reference to the “thereafter” which is crucial for dealing with fear.

About the author: Dr Wolf-Ulrich Klünker is professor of philosophy and the epistemological foundations of anthroposophy at Alanus University in Alfter and founder of the Delos Research Centre for Psychology in Berlin.