Fearing the Unknown


Donald Miller has a great and oft-quoted line in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, his book highlighting the challenges he faced while turning his life story into a screenplay.

In the book, Miller is unsettled to realize his life, as it is thus far, seems to make a really dull movie, that fear has prevented him from living a story worth watching.

“Fear isn’t only a guide to keep us safe,” he writes. “It’s also a manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring life.”

We often don’t realize how fear affects us. For Miller, it took a film producer visiting his house, asking him plot questions, before he considered the ways in which fear and complacency had a stronghold on him.

And while I agree with Miller’s conclusion that fear has the power to sit us on the couch while we avoid the world and anything with the potential for failure, I don’t think it stops there.

I don’t believe fear’s effects are always so passive, and you don’t have to watch CNN very long to find a good example.


In January, Donald Trump spoke with the New York Times’ editorial writers, admitting he basically just says what his followers want to hear. “You know,” he said of his events, “if it gets a little boring, if I see people starting to sort of, maybe thinking about leaving, I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, ‘We will build the wall!’ and they go nuts.”


Which sounds about right.

But if we consider what’s really happening here, it’s nothing short of disturbing: that a presidential campaign taking place in the United States could find so much traction, so much support, rallying around a common hatred for virtually every minority inside our boarders—it’s a lot to wrap my mind around.

On top of that, there’s something else we need to consider: that this is the man responsible for making Trump a household name synonymous with Power and Success.

We have a tendency to lose sight of Donald Trump as one of the most proven and successful brand developers in the world. More important to Donald Trump than Donald Trump having a lot of money is that we know Donald Trump has a lot of money. His name is a story, a brand. And he’s been adding to that story for the past year, carefully crafting and honing it, putting himself at the center. It’s the one he believes Americans want to hear this election season.

His story? We will crush anything and everything that scares us (e.g. those who don’t look like us, practice our religion, or speak our language).

The problem? He was right. He cracked the code. It’s exactly the story we wanted.

What we fear is the unknown—the different—and Donald Trump was keen to it from the start. And yes, while every candidate has established some form of personal branding (it’s why we vote for them), what worries me is which candidate is finding success.

When our fear of the unknown is at its most powerful and destructive, we become aggressively stagnant. We want so badly to stand still, to stay the same, we’ll violently reject any newness we feel is being forced on us, or the nudges we feel coming from behind.

While Donald Miller’s unknown took the form of a life full of risks, it appears our unknowns can come in all shapes and sizes. A new job, getting married, or moving abroad. A relationship with a parent could be an unknown. It could be a skin color or someone’s clothes. Visiting a new church or an unfamiliar culture.


John O’Donohue, the late Irish poet and philosopher, talks about fearing the unknown in his book To Bless the Space Between Us. He calls it “an act of great self-neglect” to allow fear to keep us from moving forward with our lives in growth and greater understanding. “There is something deep in us that conspires with what wants to remain within safe boundaries and stay the same,” he says.

But if the root of our fear is so often found in the unknown, can’t we assume making it known will be part of the solution?

Making the decision not to let fear determine our actions is the hardest part. However, beginning the journey is the key according to O’Donohue. “Perhaps the art of harvesting the secret riches of our lives is best achieved when we place profound trust in the act of beginning . . . We always need to cast a critical look at where we presently are, attempting always to discern where we have become stagnant and where a new beginning might be ripening.”

Of course, it’s unfair to generalize about an entire populous with only one known commonality (even if it’s a love for Donald Drumpf). But in light of everything we’ve witnessed this election season, I think we owe it to each other to listen to John O’Donohue’s words and cast a critical look on where we are, both Trump supporters and non. How are we stagnant, and how could we be growing in empathy and understanding? Is fear keeping us from that?

In what ways are we allowing fear of something we don’t understand— something we’ve never experienced, the unknown—to keep from living and growing and changing? I’ll end with a blessing:

“May my mind come alive today

To the invisible geography

That invites me to new frontiers,

To break the dead shell of yesterdays,

To risk being disturbed and changed.”

-John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us



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