Twenty years ago, a signal book was published in the self-help industry, “The Gift of Fear,” by Gavin de Becker. Growing up, De Becker lived in a home where there was routine violence, including gun violence, between his mother and her various husbands. It was the kind of environment where he had to learn bone-deep, intuitive survival skills to navigate his home world, so he could predict when violence was coming to protect himself and his younger sister. He had to go deep within himself to learn to survive this ordeal. But he ended it using it in the most productive way imaginable. Instead of allowing it to overrun his life and set off a multi-generational pattern of abuse, he honed this inner voice until he made it into his superpower and the basis of his vaunted career as a decorated security analyst. Years later, he systematized the intuitive, in-the-moment signaling he had learned as a child into a communicable skill set that could be taught to others. He formatted this first into the MOSAIC threat assessment system, used by the Supreme Court police and the U.S. Capitol police to judge threats against members of the court and the Congress. And then, later, he wrote his book so that his method would be accessible to the public.
We often throw around the phrase survival skills to refer to this matter. But few people think into their experiences as deeply as De Becker did and then develop from it a uniquely valuable skill set with communicable precision. The lesson here is that even the bad circumstances we survive provide us with remarkable, positive gifts if we are resilient enough to extricate ourselves from the negative psychological and spiritual repercussions they throw our way.
Fortunately, not all gifts of the intuition are born out of such bleak circumstances. But instead of focusing on our unique gift sets, our superpowers, as it were, in our culture, instead, we too often focus on the patterns of disconnection and depression.
Sometimes, these are the only stories we let resonate for ourselves, the stories that are bleak, negative and limited; creating mythologies about ourselves and how we react in certain circumstances that highlight the inevitable bad ending. Until that becomes what we see first and last. In this case, we are letting fear overwhelm us. Instead of channeling us onto a safer path, it’s preventing us from moving anywhere.
I remember a remarkable small film in 2005 called “The Upside of Anger,” starring Joan Allen and Kevin Costner. The film, which takes place somewhere in suburbia, starts off with a successful American couple and their three daughters. Right at the beginning of the film, the husband disappears. Despite attempts to track him, no trace of him is ever found. From this event, his wife reaches the crushing conclusion that his plan had been in the making for months, so perfectly was it executed; she is appalled and depressed by the light that this sheds on their relationship that she believed had been happy. All through that year, his wife and his daughters spend their time in depressed trances, each one seeing mostly the negative in their lives, based on the gaping hole they all feel. Just as the wife is finally, with great effort, beginning to turn her life around, the husband is discovered. He had fallen, it turns out, into a long-abandoned and covered-over well on a neglected part of their property and died of his injuries. In other words, he never abandoned his family at all. But the belief that he had left them created the worst kind of confirmation bias for his wife and three daughters all that long year so that everything they saw in their lives was distorted through that lens.
The truth delivered in this film resonated deeply for me when I saw it because I had just begun, at that time, to unravel some of the stories of failures I had been telling myself at that point. It is only since I have begun to let those short-sighted old tales fall away, false narratives I had constructed about my shortcomings, that some of my other gifts have begun to shine through.
Fear has so many sides to it. And we all have to learn how to navigate through it individually. On the other side of it lies our gifts.
Mara Schiffren, a Campus Watch Fellow, is a writer and functional medicine health coach who lives in North Salem.