We’ve all heard the advice about facing our fears. What usually goes unanswered, though, is the question: How come I faced my fears and they’ve returned?
They often do. A professor I know who has spoken to the United States Congress still gets anxious before starting a class. Remembering this makes me glad and grateful that my own fear of public speaking vanished long ago.
But why do some fears hang on?
Perhaps because we have not understood what they offer us.
One of the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm was, “The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs.” It starts out with a woodcutter wanting to marry a princess, only to be told by her father, the king, that he must bring back three of the Devil’s hairs to win her hand. The king is worried about her marrying beneath her station and hopes to get rid of her suitor.
As the woodcutter journeys to Hell, he is asked questions whenever he stops: Why is this girl sick? Why is this well dry? Why is that tree dying? When will the ferryman be relieved of his duty? Each time he is asked, he replies, “I’ll tell you when I come back.”
When he knocks on the Devil’s door, his wife answers. Telling the woodcutter that the Devil is out, she feels sorry for the young man and asks why he has come. Once he tells her, she offers to hide him under the Devil’s bed.
When the Devil returns, he and his wife lay down to sleep. Three times she pulls out one of his hairs; when he wakes, he pretends to have had a dream—about a sick girl, a dry well, a dying tree, and an unrelieved ferryman. The Devil knows what causes these tragedies: the toad making the girl sick, the stone making the well dry, etc.
In this way the woodcutter under the bed obtains both the hairs of the Devil and the answers he needs. The last line of the story’s original version is, “This is why whomever is not afraid of the Devil can tear out his hair and win the entire world.”
As this and other folktales suggest, perhaps to face our fears is not enough. Perhaps we must tear from them the answers hiding in the roots of their hair. Perhaps behind every persistent fear waits an undisclosed truth we do not even know we need.
Craig Chalquist is the Founding Editor-in-Chief of Immanence Journal.