Traumatic experience can open the door to the significant existential insight that loss, pain, death, and unpredictability are all inevitable features of every human life. Perhaps less obvious is the strong connection between that insight and what Joseph Campbell called "the rapture associated with being alive." (see the previous post -Trauma and Insight - 2/14/2016). We'll explore that theme further in future posts. First I'd like to look at two emotional states that are closely related to trauma: fear and anxiety.
Imagine the relief
Master horseman and trainer Buck Brannaman, the subject of the documentary film Buck (1), knows a lot about horses.
It turns out that he knows something about fear and trauma too. He experienced severe physical abuse as a child and was placed in foster care. He went on to become a renowned trainer of horses and horse people. In his review of the film Buck, Roger Ebert wrote the following:
"He was dealt a hand that might have destroyed him. He overcame his start and is now a wise and influential role model. He does unto horses as he wishes his father had done onto him." (2)
In the following very short video (3), Brannaman conveys a gut sense of the experience of fear, suggests a path for addressing fear, and points out the relief that might come from overcoming it. It’s important to emphasize that he’s talking primarily about fear, and not trauma (more about that distinction later).
Brannaman is talking very eloquently in this video about the nature of fear, and how one might meet and overcome it. He's also talking here about courage - the ability to face the object of one's fear, to look, to shine a light, to understand, to climb a mountain that seems too high to climb. He holds out the hope of no longer being afraid - "imagine, what a relief that is" - and offers caution as an appropriate strategy in dealing with the dangerous.
Fear, Anxiety, and Courage
The video shines a light on two aspects of fear as many psychotherapists understand it. First, fear is always "fear of" something - in this case, horses. Second, fear can be overcome through courageous engagement with the object of fear. It doesn't take much imagination to see that the lessons here might be generally applicable to fears other than the fear of horses ("fear of" spiders, snakes, flying, public speaking, and so on).
In his book The Courage to Be, theologian / philosopher Paul Tillich shines some light on fear, anxiety, and courage:
"Courage is usually described as the power of the mind to overcome fear. The meaning of fear seemed too obvious to deserve inquiry. But in the last decades, depth psychology in cooperation with Existentialist philosophy has led to a sharp distinction between fear and anxiety and to more precise definitions of each of these concepts." (4)
We'll save a deeper exploration of anxiety (and trauma) for a future post. For now, it's enough to point out that fear and anxiety (and, of course, trauma) are different experiences. What more can we say about fear and courage? What distinguishes fear from anxiety, and how is courage effective in meeting fear? Tillich again:
"Fear, as opposed to anxiety, has a definite object (as most authors agree), which can be faced, analyzed, attacked, endured. One can act upon it, and in acting upon it participate in it - even if in the form of struggle. In this way one can take it into one's self-affirmation. Courage can meet every object of fear, because it is an object, and makes participation possible. Courage can take the fear produced by a definite object into itself, because this object, however frightful it may be, has a side with which it participates in us and we in it. One could say that as long as there is an object of fear love in the sense of participation can conquer fear." (5)
So fear is always "fear of" something, and it can be met with courage. But anxiety is not fear, and trauma is not fear, and they stand in a different relationship with courage. In future posts, I'll more fully address the experience of anxiety (a central concept in Existential Psychotherapy) and trauma.
(1) Goldman, J. (Producer), & Meehl, C. (Director). (2011). Buck [Motion Picture]. United States: Cedar Creek Productions.
(2) Ebert, R. (2011, June 22). Buck. Retrieved from http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/buck-2011
(3) 7 Clinics with Buck Brannaman. (2012, August 23). Buck on Fear - INTRO DIsk 4 [Video file]. Retrieved from youtube.com/watch?v=dOM5saEFBgM
(4) Tillich, Paul. (1952). The Courage To Be. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 34.
(5) Tillich, Paul. (1952). The Courage To Be. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 36.
Let me know if you have any comments or questions.