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September 08, 2016

My Year of “The Great Illusion” Dr. Foster’s Opening Day Chapel

Fostering Community

Last year was quite the year for me.  For those of you who are new to Trafalgar, you might not know that I took time off last year to be treated for breast cancer.  Those are scary words to say, but over time I’ve become more comfortable saying them out loud. But I’m happy to tell everyone that I finished my treatment over the summer, had a wonderful and relaxing time up north with my family, and am excited to be back, feeling healthy and energized.

This morning, I don’t want to talk about me, in particular, but I do want to talk about something I learned this year. I learned many things this year – I learned about kindness, about incredible friendship, about community. But I want to talk to you today about this important lesson: Life throws challenges at us that we neither anticipate nor want.  It’s inevitable; it’s part of life; it happens to all of us; and it puts us into situations that can be tough to deal with.

When this happens, we often become frightened; we want to run away; we sometimes even wish we could simply stick our heads in the sand and ignore what’s happening around us.  Or as in the book we just read, Scaredy Squirrel, we hide out in a tree.  And you know what?  It’s normal and okay to go there at first because we’re human and we were built to feel deeply.  So if you are sitting here today feeling a bit nervous about starting something new, or if you are sitting here thinking about a problem you have at home that you’re struggling with, I want you to know that the emotions you are feeling are normal.  I also want you to know that you’re not alone.

But fear is not a place we can stay.  Fear is not helpful – unless of course green martians or killer bees are chasing you.  In that case, fear is your friend. But in everyday life, we are going to encounter difficult situations that tax our ability to cope. It doesn’t matter if the problem is huge or small – many things can make us feel nervous or anxious or tentative or truly petrified. Let me assure you, these feelings arise all the time and everyone feels them.

Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote, “There is no illusion greater than fear.”

What did Lao Tzu mean by this?  How can fear be merely an illusion? Because anyone who has felt fear knows it feels very real.

I think what Lao Tzu was trying to remind us is that fear is largely a fear of what might be – of the thing we are afraid of actually coming to pass.  In life, much of what we fear never transpires, and yet here we are, spending precious moments fretting and worrying and not acting with the courage needed to move forward.

So what do we do in these moments of uncertainty or anxiety or real fear?

Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa was someone who demonstrated great courage in the face of fear.  In his fight against Apartheid in South Africa, he risked his life; he experienced physical and mental pain; he spent 27 years in prison. I am sure he had moments of absolute despair yet we see him as an individual of great, great courage, admired for his willingness to fight in the face of fear.

What did Mandela have to say about fear?  Well, here’s what he shared:

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

I would like to change that to read:  “The brave Trafalgar girl is not she who does not feel afraid, but she who conquers that fear.”

In order to triumph over fear, we must first acknowledge it. We must admit (at least to ourselves) that it’s present.  That simple moment of acknowledgement, of just “paying attention” to what we feel inside is important in order to move on.  That’s mindfulness in practice.

In order to triumph over fear, we must also be kind and show compassion towards ourselves.  It doesn’t help to beat yourself up because you feel afraid.  Remember – feeling scared is not a sign of weakness; it’s a normal response to a difficult situation.  So being kind to yourself in that moment is important.

After you acknowledge those feelings, then what? How do you move on? How do you find courage?

Courage is often found simply by putting one foot in front of the other.  Just deciding to move forward, to do what has to be done, to resist the urge to overthink what comes next – these are the actions that will help the courage that is already within you rise to the surface.

Allowing those around you to provide help is another way to demonstrate courage.  We sometimes think that courage is a solitary pursuit that we have to undertake alone – and perhaps that’s true to an extent.  But I argue that surrounding ourselves with kindness and support helps our courage to grow.  Knowing that we are not alone gives us the strength and the fortitude to keep moving forward.

And finally, it’s important to acknowledge the power of self-talk.  There is something incredibly important in telling yourself, “I can do this!”  Even if you don’t truly believe it in that moment, just saying, “Yes, I can” helps change your perspective in an instant. Simply hearing those words does something magical and creates that slightest bit of possibility that allows fear to change into hope.

As we begin this year together, let’s endeavor to be brave. (Remember that word from last year?) Let’s acknowledge that tackling the unknown can sometimes be scary. But let’s leap from our tree, stare down those moments of uncertainty, and dig deep within ourselves to find the “Yes, I can” voice – no matter how small.  And most of all, let’s remind ourselves that we are surrounded by the support and friendship of this wonderful community that is ready to help us every step of the way.

To end, I’d like to quote the great philosopher Winnie the Pooh who said, “You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

Let’s face this year together with thoughtfulness, kindness and courage!

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