Stripping fear down to its bare bones


THAT'S MEN:‘DO YOU see that lad there?” the teacher asked, pointing to a skeleton that occupied a corner of the classroom.

“Does it feel anything? No. Does it feel fear? No. Is it courageous? No. If he cannot feel fear, he cannot be courageous.”

This odd piece of teaching was done in a classroom in a college some decades ago. One of the lads had volunteered to sing solo during a rehearsal, but had tied himself up in knots of shyness while we all enjoyed the spectacle.

He forgot lines, he sang out of tune, but he soldiered on to the end.

Needless to say we all made a laugh of him and that’s when the teacher called into play a skeleton, which actually belonged in the laboratory

but had somehow made his way up to our classroom during the summer holidays and had stayed there, eventually becoming an unremarked presence in the room.

The teacher’s point was that the fellow we were slagging had displayed more courage than the rest of us by singing through his state of panic.

If he had not been full of fear, he would not have been courageous.

None of this constituted a reason for making him a solo singer – by the following week he had been returned to the ranks. But at least he had provided the teacher with an opportunity to expostulate on the subject of fear and courage.

I thought of the skeleton when I was watching a video of a presentation by a business coach called Pamela Slim on the subject of fear.

She suggested her audience try to work out the “fear message”. In other words, what is my fear telling me and what do I need to do about it?

I have always been struck by the fact that some people seem energised by fear to move forward and to do the next thing they need to do.

In my case, fear has held me back more often than it has pushed me forward.

Usually, eventually, I get more or less to where I want to go to, but it might take me 20 years longer to get there than anybody else – probably because of fear, or anxiety which is the same thing.

But others seem to move forward like tanks onto a battlefield when they are hit by fear.

Either fear excites them or else they are instinctively asking themselves that question: what is my fear telling me and what do I need to do about it?

When I remember to ask myself these questions, I find that I can sometimes see very clearly what I need to do. Sometimes a sense of calm then replaces the fear – though not always, I must admit.

Don’t get me wrong: I would be entirely happy to live in a world in which I could outsource my fears to others to handle while I sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labours.

Sometimes I even get away with doing that.

Unfortunately, though, the world is bafflingly imperfect, so sometimes I myself am obliged to face my own fears.

By taking my fear as a source of information and by asking what my fear is telling me to do, I seem to get further than by shrinking away and hiding.

Fear might tell me I need to clear a space for what is really important, that I need to make that phone call right now, that I need to go talk to my accountant, or that I need to step off the carousel for a couple of hours and relax.

When that happens, when I make friends with my fear, I can identify with that skeleton in the corner of the room who did not flinch at all for the purposes of a lesson by a philosophical Christian Brother.

I would like to go and shake hands with him except that, well, you know . . .

Go to see the video

Padraig O’Morain ( is accredited as a counsellor by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

His book, Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His monthly mindfulness newsletter is free by email.