Fear and the Log in Our Own Eye

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Why do you spot the splinter in your brother’s eye,
but not notice the log in your own eye?
How can you say to your brother,
“Brother, allow me to extract the splinter from your eye,”
when you yourself don’t see the log in your own eye!
Then you can see clearly enough to extract the splinter from your brother’s eye.

Luke 6: 41-2

Jesus, the teacher, asks a compelling question today: “Why do you spot the splinter in your brother’s eye, but not notice the log in your own eye? One of the most surprising awarenesses I experience, unfortunately usually only in retrospect, is how angry at times I can “feel” at such relatively minor irritations from others or how enraged I can feel at a relatively minor slight.

What goes on in us that our spontaneous mode of existence lives out such self-centered demands of others and the world?

A teacher of mine used to refer to the experience of infancy as that of “his or her majesty the baby”. In the earliest phase of our lives, our needs, desires, and fears are the center of our universe. As infants our entire lives are lived in the context of our “original fear and original desire” that are the result of the “trauma” of our birth. Throughout our lives there remains at some powerful level within us this original fear of being unable to “make it” along with the deep desire to survive.

A friend often points out that the experience of anger is usually something of a “cover” for the deeper experience of sadness, and often of fear. Perhaps something of the answer to Jesus’ question of why we see the fault in the other and not in ourselves is that “a good offense is a good defense.” We “spot the splinter in the other’s eye” because we fear and are saddened by the “log” in our own: that is by our fear and vulnerability, and by our craving for survival which we feel depends on the other’s taking care of us.

When we live unreflectively based on our repressed original fear and desire, we live an unconscious life of entitlement. The world and the other exists only in relationship to my fears and my desires, and when they fail to respond to them as I believe they should, I “see” the other as useless, as failing to meet my demands for what makes them valuable.

The question of Jesus in today’s gospel also provides insight into how we must practice in order to cease focusing on the splinter in the other’s eye. It is to notice, that is to live in awareness of, the log in our own eye, of the fear in our own life. The Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of this from the perspective of his tradition.

We all experience fear, but if we can look deeply into our fear, we will be able to free ourselves from its grip and touch joy. Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.

The first part of looking at our fear is just inviting it into our awareness without judgment. We just acknowledge gently that it is there. This brings a lot of relief already. Then, once our fear has calmed down, we can embrace it tenderly and look deeply into its roots, its sources. Understanding the origins of our anxieties and fears will help us let go of them. Is our fear coming from something that is happening right now, or is it an old fear, a fear from when we were small, that we’ve kept inside? When we practice inviting all our fears up, we become aware that we are still alive, that we still have many things to treasure and enjoy. If we are not busy pushing down and managing our fear, we can enjoy the sunshine, the fog, the air, and the water. If you can look deeply into your fear and have a clear vision of it, then you really can live a life that is worthwhile.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Fear, p. 4

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