A Feature Review of
How Not to Be Afraid: Seven Ways to Live When Everything Seems Terrifying
Reviewed by Erin Feldman
In Gareth Higgins’s book How Not to Be Afraid: Seven Ways to Live When Everything Seems Terrifying, Higgins invites readers to reexamine their assumptions about fear. He suggests the usual responses to fear—fight, flight, or freeze—are not the only options available. But to discover those options, Higgins argues, people must first acknowledge and name their fears. People who follow the advice will find that they can move forward, because they have learned to tell a better story about themselves and their fears. Higgins says,
Fear doesn’t go away—nor should it. … The problem is when fear becomes the lens through which we see everything. We’re often afraid of the wrong things, or we fear the right things the wrong way. Then we find it difficult or impossible to tell the difference between the story in our head and what we’re actually facing (5).
Higgins’s aim, then, is for people to gain perspective on their fears so that they can see not only more clearly but also more hopefully. This goal is not for the individual’s benefit alone; Higgins regularly commends the common good, which he loosely defines as “the ecosystem in which humans participate” (6). To Higgins, telling a better story about one’s personal fears produces a person better able to commune and collaborate with other people, for the good of the world. Fear no longer holds the person captive. Rather, fear becomes their launching point for hope-filled, life-giving possibilities.
For a person to become hopeful and proactive, rather than captive or reactive, Higgins begins by setting a foundation. As he points out, learning a new way to live with fear requires diagnosing the fear first,
We’re here to uncover how story shapes our lives, to take a look at how fears depend on the story we tell about them, and to imagine a new story. … It will not serve us to speak of fighting or seeking to defeat fear, because adversarial force always boomerangs. Instead, we are invited to be engaged in creating a shelter for larger, more truthful stories. Better stories about fear can transform these burdens into fuel for a more beautiful life, for a more peaceful world, helping us find calm amid the storm (11–12).
Higgins’s first five chapters explore fear and the stories people tell about it. He starts with a simple, yet potentially disruptive question: “What is it that I am really afraid of?” (21). Higgins then identifies seven fears common to the human condition, which form the basis of the second section of the book. The other introductory chapters give a brief history of fear, explore reasons why people feel afraid, and propose Higgins’s concept of a “story shelter” (69–80). These five chapters rely primarily on Higgins’s perspective—few, if any, of his points are accompanied by citations. As an example, Higgins notes neuroscientists’ research in chapters 1 and 2, but he does not provide specific sources (23, 40). Higgins is not writing a scientific treatise on fear, of course, but the lack of supporting documentation can be disconcerting.
In addition, some of the questions raised in the introductory chapters seemingly go unanswered. Chapter 4, for instance, ends with the following questions, “If I am not the protagonist, my ego no longer has to hold the burden of being at the center of the story. But who or what is? And if there is indeed a better story with a better center, how can I find it?” (67) Presumably, the answer to the center of the story resides with either the “true self” or “love.” Higgins refers to love as “the protagonist” on page 78, and he gives a portion of chapter 3 to uncovering the true self. But neither of those answers are explicitly called the “center,” which leaves the reader with the responsibility of deciding what the center is.
Higgins does provide ways to author a better story, though, beginning with chapter 5. In this chapter, Higgins details the story shelter, which is not meant to defeat fear but to make it irrelevant (79). The subsequent chapters explore specific fears and ways of relating to them.
Chapter 6, for example, examines the fear of being alone. This is one of the shorter chapters in the second half of the book; most of the others grow in length. Chapters 9, 10, and 11 all range between 20 and 30 pages. The subjects of those chapters are weighty—chapter 11 focuses on the fear of the world—but the greater length does not always seem warranted.
The practices found at the ends of chapters 6–12 can also become repetitive, but only if a person reads the book from cover to cover. Many of the practices involve sitting and being still for extended periods of time. The practice is a healthy one, but it could challenge a person unaccustomed to self-reflection and introspection. Some of the other practices, however, stand out. Higgins’s community practice, which he calls “Porch Circles” (179–180), is lovely, achievable, and effective.
All of the practices Higgins recommend come from the “contemplative tradition” (22). In that regard, Higgins’s book is spiritual. That spirituality is a broad one, however, and it may not be for every reader, depending on their faith tradition. Then again, if the book’s spirituality produces internal angst, it could be perceived as an invitation to personal examination.
That is an invitation worth accepting. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates supposedly said. It is not. By questioning the narratives heard in the world and retold in the mind and heart, a person can learn to not only tell truer, more hopeful stories but also live a life that blesses others. As Higgins says early in the book, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better” (34).