Nobody gets up in the morning and says, "I want a child to die of hunger today" or "I want pollution to get worse." But both things will happen. My whole life has been about peeling away the layers of "why, why, why," and as I neared my 60th birthday I needed to know why we keep creating a world that none of us wants. The reason, I believe, is fear.
One expert on fear management estimates that we each have about 66,000 thoughts a day and that two-thirds of them are fear-based. Those fears come in two basic forms: fear of the unknown and fear of conflict—which is enormous because, back in ancient times, getting cast out of the tribe meant certain death. We human beings still suffer from that hardwiring, even though today, staying with the tribe means following a crowd off a cliff. The fact is, right now a group of people somewhere in the world is causing massive destruction, and most of us just try not to think about where we're headed.
I've been scared to death twice in my life—not when I was on a hairpin turn in the Himalayas or when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Both times were when I thought I was letting people down and that I would be hated—in other words, cast out.
When I was 26, I dropped out of graduate school. I didn't leave home much because I was afraid people would ask what I was doing and I would have to answer, "Nothing." But now I realize that allowing myself to be in that void let me hear the little voice of my own curiosity. That curiosity eventually led me to write Diet for a Small Planet and create what I thought was my ultimate dream, the Center for Living Democracy, an organization set up to help citizens tackle America's social problems. But at 56, I found I had so assiduously avoided conflict with almost everyone in my life that my dream was seriously off-track. After a very painful time, I chose to close the Center. Every piece of my "ultimate dream" came apart. The marriage. The organization. I lost the first piece of land I'd bonded with. And my alleged life's work.
Then my children threw me a lifeline: They suggested I write a 30th-anniversary sequel to Diet for a Small Planet. I returned to my first grand passion—food and how it connects us to our health, one another, and our planet. These experiences taught me that fear is just an energy—an energy we can use to our advantage or be cowed by.
We can all reprogram our brain's responses by putting ourselves into new, initially uncomfortable situations. We'll learn fear might not mean "stop"; personally, I've come to believe fear usually means "go." It always means listen closely.
Today a lot of people assume they're fearful because of terrorism or the shaky economy. But I've grown certain that the root of all fear is that we've been forced to deny who we are. Because when you get right down to it, even the fear of death is nothing compared to the fear of not having lived authentically and fully.
Frances Moore Lappé is the coauthor of You Have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear(Tarcher/Penguin).