Be Not Afraid
Parker J. Palmer


Fear is everywhere--in our culture, in our institutions, in our students, in ourselves--and it cuts us off from everything.  Surrounded and invaded by fear, how can we transcend it and reconnect with reality for the sake of teaching and learning?  The only path I know that might take us in that direction is the one marked "spiritual."

Fear is so fundamental to the human condition that all the great spiritual traditions originate in an effort to overcome its effects on our lives.  With different words, they all proclaim the same core message:  "Be not afraid."  Though the traditions vary widely in the ways they propose to take us beyond fear, all hold out the same hope:  we can escape fear's paralysis and enter a state of grace where encounters with otherness will not threaten us but will enrich our work and our lives.

It is important to note with care what that core teaching does and does not say.  "Be not afraid" does not say that we should not have fears--and if it did, we could dismiss it as an impossible counsel of perfection.  Instead, it says that we do not need to be our fears, quite a different proposition.

As a young teacher, I yearned for the day when I would know my craft so well, be so competent, so experienced, and so powerful that I could walk into any classroom without feeling afraid.

But now, in my late fifties, I know that day will never come.  I will always have fears, but I need not be my fears--for there are other places in my inner landscape from which I can speak and act.

Each time I walk into a classroom, I can choose the place within myself from which my teaching will come, just as I can choose the place within my students toward which my teaching will be aimed.  I need not teach from a fearful place; I can teach from curiosity or hope or empathy or honesty, places that are as real within me as are my fears.  I can have fear, but I need not be fear--if I am willing to stand someplace else in my inner landscape.

We yearn for a different place to stand, and I know of no better description of that yearning than the Rilke poem:

Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars.
The inner--what is it?
if not intensified sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming.

"Cut off" is our customary state of being.  But there is within us the constant yearning for connectedness, a yearning--"Ah!"--to live without the slightest partition between our souls and the distant stars, between ourselves and the world's otherness.  We yearn for community with the other because we know that with it we would feel more at home in our lives, no longer strangers to one another and aliens to the earth.

But the "homecoming" of which Rilke speaks has two qualities that make it quite different from our conventional image of home.  First, it is inner, not outer.  This home is not a place that we can own--but by the same token, we cannot be banned from it, and it cannot be stolen from us.  No matter where we are or what condition we are in or how many obstacles are before us, we can always come back home through a simple inward turning.

Second, when we make that inward turn, the home we find is not a closed and parochial place in which we can hide, from which we can neither see nor be seen.  Instead, this home is as open and vast as the sky itself.  Here we are at home with more than our own familiar thoughts and those people who think like us.  We are at home in a universe that embraces both the smallness of "I" and the vastness of all that is "not I," and does so with consummate ease.  In this home, we know ourselves not as isolated atoms threatened by otherness but as integral parts of the great web of life.  In that knowing, we are taken beyond fear toward wholeness.

This book builds on a simple premise: good teaching cannot be reduced to technique but is rooted in the identity and integrity of the teacher. Good teachers share one trait: they are authentically present in the classroom, in community with their students and their subject. They possess "a capacity for connectedness" and are able to weave a complex web of connections between themselves, their subjects, and their students, helping their students weave a world for themselves. The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts the place where intellect, emotion, spirit, and will converge in the human self supported by the community that emerges among us when we choose to live authentic lives.

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When you are frightened, you typically pull energy in to your center,
seeing less, hearing less--shrinking consciousness precisely
when you need to expand it.

Nathaniel Branden
Self-Esteem Every Day


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It is not that you must be free from
fear.  The moment you try to free
yourself from fear, you create a resistance
against fear.  Resistance, in any form,
does not end fear.  What is needed, rather
than running away or controlling or
suppressing or any other resistance, is
understanding fear; that means, watch it,
learn about it, come directly into contact
with it.  We are to learn about fear,
not how to escape from it, not how to
resist it through courage and so on.

J. Krishnamurti


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