For decades I have worked with severely “at-risk” youth; some who willingly put their lives at risk, and others who find themselves at risk for reasons beyond their control. Of course, all youth are at risk to some degree, as each young person must risk themselves in the world to learn who they are at the core of their life. Now, amidst growing fears and uncertainty about the future, young people sense that everything around them is at greater risk. Young people, who are supposed to be the “future of the world,” can find themselves fearing that the world has very little future to offer them.
Whether it be educated youth considering the increasing dangers of climate change or less privileged ones who feel the bite of poverty and the growing disparity between rich and poor, modern youth grow up amidst threats of natural disaster, nightmares of terrorism and bewilderment at the ineffectiveness and lack of courage of those who seem to have the most power. Increasingly, I hear young people asking how to act in a world that seems to be coming apart at the seams.
Having found my own way through the world by studying myths and stories, I tend to answer with old tales that show how people have survived great troubles and the spread of fear many times before. Too much fear can lead to unnecessary panic as well as a paralysis of imagination. An old story can help contain the fear and reduce the tendency to panic and run away from life’s inevitable risks.
This old teaching story comes from the great African savannahs where life pours forth in the form of teeming, feeding herds. As the herds eat their way across the plains, lions wait in the tall grass nearby, anticipating the chance to prey upon the grazing animals. In preparation, they send the oldest and weakest members of the pride away from the rest of the hunting pack. Having lost much of their strength and most of their teeth, the roar of the old ones is far greater than their ability to bite.
The old lions go off and settle in the grass directly across from where the strong and hungry lions wait and watch. As the herd enters the area between the hunting pack and the old lions, the old ones roar mightily. At the sound of the roaring, most of the herd panics. Blinded by fear, they turn and flee from the seeming source of danger. As they rush wildly in the opposite direction, they run right to where the strongest lions wait in the tall grass for dinner to arrive.
“Run towards the roar,” the old people used to tell the young ones. When faced with great danger in this world, run towards the roaring, go where you fear to go, for only there will you find some safety and a way through danger. Trouble that is faced when it first appears can be the roar that awakens a person’s deepest resources. In times of trouble or tragedy, a person either steps into life more fully or else slips into a diminished life characterized by fear and anxiety.
The modern world has begun to roar in a big way and fear has become the dominant emotion amongst people of all ages. Old folks fear that they will lose health care and retirement benefits; those in their prime earning years fear that they can’t earn enough or could lose their jobs at any moment; and young people fear that there is no place for them in this fearful world where the whole thing could seemingly end at any moment.
Clearly, there are real fears and wild uncertainties in this rapidly changing world. There are many people waiting and willing to exploit the fears of others. And, the tendency to panic as part of the herd can suddenly strike anyone. Everyone feels some fear when panic is in the air. Yet, fear can also be a guide that clarifies what needs to be risked for a greater life to be found. That’s what I tell young people when they ask what to do as the world around us becomes increasingly riddled with great uncertainty and blind reactions.
Don’t get caught in the blind fears that grip the herd. When the world roars at you, it is time to go where you fear to go. The real risk in this life has always been that of becoming oneself amidst the uncertainties of existence. On this earth everything we are given can also become lost. The notion that life should be safe or even that retirement should be secure misses the point of fully living the story seeded in one’s soul from the beginning.
The old soul in the human psyche knows that the whole thing has hung by a thread all along. Not that there aren’t real fears, but that those who are older are supposed to draw wisdom from surviving the trouble in their own lives. Those “old enough to know better” are not supposed to panic and foolishly add to the roaring of the world.
Those looking for security in the midst of radical change become easy pickings for those trying to benefit from the roaring troubles of this world. Those who believe that life should be predictable or that their security should be guaranteed wind up caught in the teeth of blind anger or debilitating fear. As an Irish poet once said, “A false sense of security is the only kind there is.”
In the end, what we fear will not go away, for it indicates what we must go through in order to live more fully. As an old African proverb advises: When death or danger finds you, let it find you alive! Whether it be an individual, a community or a country, when faced with tragedy or fearful uncertainty we either enter life more fully or else begin to accept a smaller way of being. In the end, or when the end seems near, genuine security can only be found by taking the risks that lead to a greater sense of life and a more inclusive and encompassing way of being in the world.