Inspired by “The Gift of Fear”, by Gavin De Becker
And so it was that one day a hunter was tracking a deer through the forest when he spotted an entirely different set of tracks flowing from another trail to fall in behind the deer’s. While the shape of the new tracks was familiar – circular, four toes, no claws showing- its size was not. He knew there was a big cat that had been ranging through this area for years, but these tracks were easily half again the size of the ones he’d seen, which were already the biggest he’d ever come across. These tracks indicated an animal of a size unimagined in spite of his extensive experience and travels. An image of the children from his community he had just seen playing in this forest flared in his mind, and he became afraid. These woods were the children’s playground, school, and sanctuary rolled into one, and while he trusted the children’s level of knowledge and awareness of the potential dangers of their surroundings, these tracks introduced an unknown and potentially extremely dangerous risk. They knew the patterns and habits of the old cat well enough to know where not to be and when. If someone else had come across these new tracks sooner, everyone would have been made aware by now. The fact that this hadn’t happened meant he was the first to see them. Moreover, they were very fresh- the newcomer couldn’t be more than a few minutes ahead of him, and he knew from experience that if you’re tracking a big cat that’s not far ahead of you, you better be sure to keep checking behind you. What made him more afraid than the freshness of the tracks was the fact that not a single other denizen of the forest noted the cat’s passing. When anything moves through the forest - particularly a predator- it throws off concentric rings of its presence; voles scurry for their burrows, which is noticed by the flock of finches who then burst from the ground to perch in the nearest trees, which in turn is noticed by squirrel who then sets its tail to furious twitching and voice to screeching, and so on. Yet he noted not a single disturbance, aside from his own gentle ripples, for the last hour. Full of fear for the children, he began following the massive tracks.
He hadn’t been following the trail for long when the cat’s footprints suddenly veered off in a new direction. This was surprising, because he had assumed the cat was stalking the deer. To suddenly break off after only a few hundred paces made no sense, unless…It knows I’m on his trail. Now more afraid than ever, he brought up his awareness to the apex of his abilities, and continued to follow the new trail. After a few minutes, the tracks abruptly ended up ahead, as if the cat had been padding along one moment, and ceased to exist the next. Afraid and confused, he settled into a full stalk, moving slower than a glacier, and approached the last set of tracks. Crouching down on his haunches to get a better look, he noticed the tell-tale signs of an animal who had gathered, then released, a tremendous amount of energy. This isn’t possible. No animal is capable of such a leap. It has simply vanished! Suddenly feeling panicked, he began wildly swinging his head around, frantically looking for sign of the cat. Then, the part of his being that was still grounded and connected to his surroundings, began to notice the air around him begin to change- a change which could only be described as a very subtle thickening. Slowly, so slowly, he raised his head and looked up- high up- into the massive branches of a grandfather chestnut. There, stretched out languidly along one of the branches, was a panther whose size defied belief. Sunlight streaming through the branches dappled his body in a patchwork of shadows, making his jet black coat even blacker in those places. The hunter froze, drawn into the panther’s eyes, which were golden, gleaming, and ancient.
“Good. For a few moments I was worried that you would let your awareness be subjugated by a fugitive imagination.”
The voice was heard by the hunter as an internal thought at the same time as an external sound. It shocked and scared him, and he began frantically swiveling his head this way and that again, searching for the source.
“Hmm. Maybe I spoke too soon.”
The hunter snapped his gaze back to the panther.
“Does it matter?” inquired the panther. “Surely you consider yourself big enough to hold these kinds of truths?”
“Given what’s apparently happening right now, I would say I no longer have a choice but to be big enough.”
“Ah, but your use of the word ‘apparently’ would imply that doubt still lingers. Do you doubt your own experience?”
“Well, no, but...”
“But perhaps there’s a part of you that’s uncomfortable with the implications should you accept your experience wholly?”
The question caught the hunter off-guard. He thought about it for a moment. “I suppose that, sometimes, accepting our experiences wholly would mean embracing some truths that we feel we’re not quite prepared to accept. The implications of those truths create fear.”
“Fear? Interesting.” said the panther. “Why not, say, curiosity? Do you not strive to understand the nature of all things?”
“Well yes, I do, but it’s hard to be curious about things we instinctively fear.”
“Is that so? Question: What was your first thought as you came upon my tracks?”
“I thought that they were the biggest I’d ever seen- they were beyond belief.”
“Beyond belief,” restated the panther. “What, then, made you believe?”
“Tracks never lie.”
“Indeed. What was your next thought?”
“I became afraid for the children who play in these woods today.”
“And what did you do about that?”
“I began tracking you to…“ The hunter abruptly stopped answering. He was not sure why he did so – only that something didn’t seem quite right with his train of thought.
“And so we pull back a layer,” interjected the panther. “I believe you are wondering to yourself, ‘If I was really afraid for the children, why didn’t I immediately find them and get them to safety?’ This is, of course, an excellent question – but one I would caution against feeling ashamed about, for I see that feeling creeping into your eyes.”
“How can I not feel ashamed? Even though I feared for the children, I chose to try and find you, just to satisfy my own…” Curiosity. Damn.
“Another layer. Yes. Curiosity. This revelation, then, begs the question: Was it really fear you felt for the children?”
“I don’t understand. How could it not be fear?”
“Come now - such crude and oppositional response is for the complacent. You are beyond that,” admonished the panther.
“Fair enough. I’m sorry, but I’m feeling…frustrated.”
“Understandable, given that it seems you just ran into one of those truths that you feel you’re not quite ready to accept. However, I would argue that you are more than ready, and simply need a nudge to help you along. So, let me ask it this way: Are there any other words you can use to describe the feeling you had when you thought about the safety of the children, other than ‘fear’?”
“Alright. I felt…panic. Anxiety. Worry.”
“And these words – they are synonymous with ‘fear’ for you?”
“Not just me, I think, but to everyone.”
“Interesting. Let me ask you this: When you thought about the children, did you know they were in danger, or did you think they might be in danger?”
“Well, I suppose the latter.”
“And have you ever had an experience where you have simply known that danger was imminent?”
“And what was the difference between that and when you “feared” for the safety of the children?”
The hunter was about to reply that there was no difference. In both cases he had acted immediately. But again, something didn’t feel right about where his thinking was heading, like he was skip-tracking – losing the signs and so jumping ahead to where he assumed they would pick up again. The panther noticed the pause in his thoughts. “We’re crossing a threshold now – take your time.”
The hunter thought about the idea of taking action, and realized that most actions are often predicated by conscious decisions…but not always.
“I think I’m beginning to get a glimpse of what you’re trying to help me see,” he said.
“The times that I have known that danger was imminent; it felt, well… intuitive. Although I felt great fear knowing danger was around the corner, once it came, the fear vanished and I acted almost by compulsion – almost like I didn’t have a choice…” His words trailed off as the thought wound down.
“You’re a tracker, and perhaps you’ve picked up the right trail…keep going.”
“Well today, as I was worried for the safety of the children, there was no sense of intuition involved – no sense of knowing that danger was certain or even likely. Because of that, I felt no compulsion to find the children immediately. I made a conscious choice to follow your tracks instead.”
“A choice to satisfy your curiosity about the nature of my tracks. You needed more information.”
“Yes, that feels right.”
“So again: Was it really fear you felt for the children?”
“Now I’m not certain it was – but I can’t quite articulate why. I felt something unpleasant while thinking about them.”
“Certainly you did – and you’ve already named it: Panic. Anxiety. Worry. You most definitely felt all of these…but none of them are fear. Why not?”
This time the hunter didn’t speak for a long moment while he attempted to bring the pieces together. After a few moments, his eyes widened.
“Choice!” he suddenly exclaimed. “The difference lies in choice.”
“Well, I mentioned that those times when I knew the danger was certain, it felt like I had no choice but to take action – I was moving before I knew it.”
“And today?” interjected the panther.
“There was no…compulsion. No feeling like I didn’t have a choice. I did think about finding the children in the moment, but then I chose to follow your trail instead.”
“So how would you articulate the differences?”
“It would seem that fear compels us through our intuition to action, or even inaction, as the situation warrants. It cuts through conscious thought before…whoa.”
If a panther can smile, it did so now. “Before what?” it asked.
“I was going to say, before panic, anxiety, and worry can get in the way.”
The panther smiled again. “Just so. Fear – real fear – is only paralyzing when your intuition knows that stillness is the best strategy. More often than not – as you said – it compels us to act without conscious thought. Fear does not paralyze – it energizes. Reacting to a true fear signal is involuntary. Worrying is a choice.”
The hunter stared off into the middle distance while he processed all this. He thought about all the times when he had likely caused himself great suffering because he had mistaken anxiety and worry for fear. The panther seemed to read his thoughts. “It should be remembered that feelings of anxiety and worry are necessary, even valuable – but only when they are recognized for what they are, are we able to ask how they serve or do not serve us in that moment. Authentic fear is pure, and its signals are picked up by the intuition. Worry is the fear we manufacture.”
“So in other words,” replied the hunter, “suffering and misery are largely optional.”
The panther simply smiled. After a moment, it rose and stretched. “The shadows are getting long. It’s time for me to hunt.”
“I don’t know what to say,” said the hunter, “‘thank you’ doesn’t seem adequate.”
“It’s perfectly adequate – and you’re quite welcome. Besides, I haven’t told you anything you didn’t already know. Should you require my mirror again, you know how to find me.” And with that, he turned away and made an enormous, silent leap onto the branch of another tree, and melted into the shadows.
“Happy hunting!” the hunter called after him.
And in his mind he heard a response: “To you as well, my friend – to you as well.”