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Survival Skills
Becoming a "Knight of Faith"

In his Pulitzer-prize winning book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker concludes that each of us is obligated to act as a "knight of faith". "Man must reach out for support to a dream, a metaphysic of hope that sustains him and makes his life worthwhile…Who knows what form the forward momentum of life will take in the time ahead or what use it will make of our anguished searching….we must fashion something…and make an offering to the life force...the person who refrains from hopeful action is really abdicating the human task."

Fear is sometimes called a "gift", a natural survival skill that can help individuals to steer clear of danger. Nevertheless, many individuals are more burdened than blessed when it comes to chronic feelings of anxiety. In our book we devote two chapters to hope and survival. The first is entitled, Survival Skills: Becoming a Knight of Faith while the second is From Fear to Hope: Peace in Troubled Waters. The first of these deals with the development of hopeful resiliency. We discuss the components of the resilient self. Terror management skills encompass both personal and spiritual resources that can be strengthened. Liberation beliefs include "plans up front" (divergent thinking strategies) as well as "plans deep down" (spiritual beliefs). A sense of spiritual integrity is forged from a life mission, an "incorruptible core" and one's commitment to establishing a legacy

Our second survival chapter draws on the classic notion that fear is the opposite of hope. We explore the major fears that can get in the way of building a hopeful life. These include fears relating to: success, being, trauma, loss, and death. Guidelines are offered for transforming each of these fears into expressions of hope. For example, there is a review of research that challenges the traditional "grief work" approach to bereavement. We offer a more balanced set of suggestions for dealing with loss through "hope work." The chapter exercise is a checklist that helps readers identify which types of fears are most problematic for them.

Related issues covered in our book

  • The resilient self: We discuss the personality factors that allow you to feel more hopeful and less vulnerable in an age of anxiety: survival- based trust, terror management capacity, and spiritual integrity
  • Striving and being: Overcoming the fears of failure and success
  • Hope for peace: Understanding trauma and the fear of being in the here and now
  • Loss: How to sustain hope in the face of loss.
  • Immortality: How to create a legacy and achieve a sense of real and symbolic immortality

Here are a few excerpts from these chapters

[From the introduction to Survival Skills]

Hope lets you breathe a little easier. It gives you a chance to live your life. It can also help you transform a loss and rise above death. These are priceless gifts in any age but particularly in this era of anxiety. We live in a world in which terrorism is rampant, new and resistant diseases are spreading, and even the mail is unsafe. We live in a time of "weapons of mass destruction" and fears about the safety of our air, food, and water.

War, disease, and aggression have been a part of the human experience since the beginning of recorded time. But things are different today. The weapons are more deadly, the spread of disease more rapid, and our awareness of danger more thorough. Moreover, these are only the proximate or immediate causes of our unease. While stressful, they are dwarfed by even more fundamental problems such as diminished community, disengaged families, mistrust of larger institutions and widespread lack of faith in an all-loving and all-powerful God. Given all these troubles and uncertainties, it is any wonder that anxiety has become the world's most prevalent psychological disorder, affecting roughly 1 in every 9 individuals?

[From the section, "Fear Stories" in From Fear to Hope]

(A trauma victim afraid of future harm.) This individual experiences the world as unsafe and has lost her faith in other people as well as the future. She settles for a job that is "beneath" her because it guarantees safety and symbolizes something she can "rest" on. As trauma expert Judith Lewis Herman notes, she and other abuse survivors live under a constant "threat of annihilation", a cloud of vigilance that leads to a narrowed and diminished existence.

(A hoarding boy afraid of losses.) He is a highly sensitive individual who takes in the painful experiences of others. He has internalized the losses of the entire family and seeks at an unconscious level to offset his fear of loss and theirs by holding on to as many material things as possible. The twin focus on retaining what already been collected and ceasing to acquire something new are also metaphors for holding on to the past.

(An obsessed man is afraid of death.) His sadness in the presence of sunsets mirrors his intrusive thoughts about death, suggesting a profound inability to deal with mortality.

[From the section, Overcoming the Fear of Hope]

Many times it has been said that fear is the opposite of hope. In the middle ages, Thomas Aquinas suggested that "hope is contrary to fear" because the former involves an imagined future good while the latter is based on an envisioned future evil. In the 17th century, Spinoza argued, "there is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope."

While fear does not always lie on the other side of hope, it happens enough to merit our close attention. If an individual hopes to win a race, they may also fear losing the race. If a sick child hopes to be cured of cancer, they may also fear the medicine will not work. It seems natural, as Spinoza observed, to experience an intermingling of hope and fear.

In one sense, the element of fear that invades hope is a simple fact of life. Living is a risk. Loving is risk. There are no guarantees-only chances. Some individuals cope with life's uncertainties by crafting an illusion of total control. However, when obstacles and calamities appear, they are often unable to move forward. Other individuals are so afraid of taking a risk they deny the future or simply give up. They are defeated from the start.

Neither the control fanatic nor the individual paralyzed with fear experience much hope. Hoping is based on faith and belief rather than reason and evidence. Hope requires conviction and courage. In contrast, those who plow ahead, assuming their lives are completely self-controlled, demonstrate little trust or openness. Similarly, those who are paralyzed by the element of risk demonstrate a profound lack of faith. In short, both of these individuals are afraid to hope.

In the remainder of this chapter, we will describe five different ways that people can be crippled by fear of hope. After a brief introduction to each of these, we will offer some suggestions for overcoming the particular fear and replacing it with hope. In essence, our approach is based on the old adage that nature abhors a vacuum. Stated differently, while many self-help books focus on ways of stamping out or conquering fear, few if any offer a valid substitute for the old way of being.

Hope Tip #14: Overcoming the fear of mortality

In Hope in the Age of Anxiety, we offer suggestions for replacing each of the above mentioned fears with hope. Here are some of our thoughts on the fear of mortality:

The fear of mortality is ancient if not eternal. The Great Pyramids were designed as "resurrection machines." The Romans refused to invoke the word "death." To this day, many people prefer to use words like, "passed away" or "lost" rather than "died" or "deceased" when speaking of a loved one.

So much has been written on this topic and countless "immortality formulas" have been proposed. After much reading and thinking about the fear of mortality, we believe it finally boils down to this simple but challenging solution - lead a double-life.

The Double-Life Prescription

The double-life prescription requires that you balance living in the here and now with an eternal perspective. In this chapter of the book, we carefully evaluate each of these very different approaches to life. We also provide some specific suggestions for incorporating these ways of being in the most balanced and hope-sustaining manner. The fruits of your investment will be an absence of regret and a sense of immortality.

Accumulated Experience: The Wisdom of "Here and Now"

Here are two quotes, one classic and another more recent, dealing with the "here and now" part of the double-life formula:

"Our fear of death is like our fear that summer will be short, but when we have had our swing of pleasure, our fill of fruit, and our swelter of heat, we say we have had our day."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Make it your practice to withdraw attention from past and future whenever they are not needed… to offer no resistance to life is to be in a state of grace, ease, and lightness …Things, people, or conditions that you thought you needed for your happiness now come to you with no struggle or effort on your part, and you are free to enjoy and appreciate them - while they last. All those things, of course, will still pass away…but with dependency gone there is no fear of loss anymore. Life flows with ease."
- Eckart Tolle, The Power of Now

As important and wise as this way of life may seem, it is not enough.

An Eternal perspective: The Wisdom of "Then and There"

Living in the present must be balanced with an eternal perspective. There is power in the past and future as well as the present. Here are a few quotes bearing on the "then and there."

"Generations come and generations go but the earth remains forever…All streams flow into the sea yet the sea is never full… there is nothing new under sun …[I thought to myself] 'Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good' …I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly - my mind still guided me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for humans to do under heaven during the few days of their lives…[I discovered these truths] Cast your bread upon the waters for after many days you will find it again… Sow your seed in the morning." - The Book of Ecclesiastes (NIV)

"The greatest use of a life is to spend it on something that will outlast it." - William James

"Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. " - Vaclav Havel

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