The Lessons of the Litany

by: John Peter Grant

The most useful advice I’ve ever encountered comes from a book set thousands of years in the future on the desert planet of Arrakis.

In the opening pages of his masterpiece Dune, Frank Herbert introduces us to the Litany Against Fear:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

I haven’t been big on prayer for a long while. But I’ve recited the Litany thousands of times since I first read Dune as a teenager — in moments of profound sadness, and of crippling anxiety, and of full-blown panic. The rhythm of the poem’s language has always has a soothing effect. But only now, as an adult, am I finally starting to understand its lessons.

The first is the irony in the opening line: I must not fear. The temptation to ignore fear, to deny its power or even its existence, is very strong. Our instinct, at the first hint of fear, is often to push it down, to swallow it until it is subsumed. Only weak people experience fear, we think.

Because we know what fear does: It is the mind-killer. When fear takes hold it shatters our sense of competence, of confidence, of self. We die a little-death each time we give in to fear; and if unchecked, eventually the fear will bring about our total obliteration. Here Herbert echoes Shakespeare’s famous couplet from Julius Caesar: “Cowards die many times before their deaths, / the valiant never taste of death but once.”

But in the fourth line the Litany begins to shift our perspective. I will face my fear. In the space of four lines we have gone from denying fear, understanding the horrible toll it can exact on us, to acknowledging it and even claiming it — my fear. Fear is inevitable for everyone, cowards and heroes alike. We must confront it — and to confront it, we must own it.

The next line is my favorite: I will permit it to pass over me and through me. Notice the use of the word permit: you are allowing the fear to pass. With one word the power dynamic has been reversed. You are the dominant one in the relationship, not the fear.

Yet the Litany is not about wrestling your fear into submission. Consider what are you allowing it to do — pass over you and through you, like a wave or gust of wind. The implied imagery is intentional here. Picture the physical sensations fear creates in the body: the tensing of the muscles, the rushes of nausea, the tingling of nerves urging you to fight or flee. When gripped by fear, we feel these sensations so intensely it’s hard to imagine them ever subsiding. Yet like a wave, the fear will pass: It will permeate you and it will shake you, but it is temporary. You will not absorb it and bloat with it; you will bend with it and permit it to go by. It will not weigh you down forever.

And like a wave, fear is a force of nature. It makes no sense to blame yourself for it. Like rain or wind, it appears and eventually, inevitably, ceases.

And when the fear has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. There’s no question: the fear will go past. Notice the five uses of the word will in these last five lines. It’s a foregone conclusion — the fear will pass. And you will retain the self-awareness and presence of mind to engage your inner eye and observe, calmly and dispassionately, the fear leaving your being.

I love the image of turning around to see the empty path the fear has left. This is intentional as well, this act of turning; you let the fear go past you, and turn to see that it’s so far behind you that it’s invisible. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.

But that last line! Only I will remain. Look what Herbert accomplishes in four tiny words. First he affirms that yes, you will survive your encounter with fear. But he doesn’t say “survive”; instead you will remain. You are still you, even when fear has shaken you to your core and made you question your very worth.

In the act of remaining you cast out that self-doubt, that shame, that guilt. You are worth it. You have inherent value that no amount of fear can destroy.

And being you — remaining — that is enough.

– John Peter Grant

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