On the Enneagram, Fear, and the College Cheating Scandal

I’ve always had a kind of obsession with personality tests and anything like it. So it was no surprise that when the old, but newly mainstream, Enneagram started making waves in my circles I was drawn to it. I loved it immediately, for a lot of reasons, not the least of these being the layers of depth it held. This was less about mapping out behavior for different types and far more about the why’s behind the behavior, the motivations. That’s what made the “test” different to me. It wasn’t telling me how I was wired and what to expect because of it. It was going to the very core of who I am and helping me identify where certain behaviors were coming from. It was giving context to an internal monologue.

Fundamentally, the Enneagram is about fear, asserting that each of the nine types is driven by a core fear. They motivate the way we behave and think, the decisions we make, and the relationships we have. It’s a terrifying premise, this idea that some sort of fear is at the root of us because it immediately identifies our vulnerability. To name our fear is to name our humanity, our limitations, and our lack.

Kids don’t have the same hang-ups with fear that adults have. They have no problem saying they are afraid of the dark. As adults we sweep in, explaining away the mystery of the shadows by turning on lights, shutting closet doors, and looking under the bed. Which is why it’s so unnerving to identify the fears we cannot dispel so easily.

A night light doesn’t make the fear of never being considered good enough by the people we love, go away.

A cracked bedroom door doesn’t make the fear of never being seen as more than our accomplishments, disappear.  

An additional lullaby sung before bed doesn’t eliminate the fear that the world doesn’t always feel safe.

Fear is powerful. In what it reveals about ourselves, in what asks us to confront head-on, in how it forces us to wrestle to the ground what feels true versus what is true, and how to live at peace with all of it. Confronting fear, though not necessarily dispelling it, can help us become the most healthy and honest version of ourselves. But left unattended? Fear is not our friend.

When news of the college cheating scandal broke a couple of weeks ago, with names of high-profile actors attached to it, there were a lot of ideas thrown out as to why it happened.

People spoke of privilege and wealth. They talked of helicopter parenting (parents who hover) and lawnmower parenting (parents who take to the road before their children eliminating as many obstacles as possible.) They talked about any number of things, but the idea that kept coming to mind reading the details behind it all was fear.

Fear motivated these parents to spend absurd amounts of money to create the future they wanted for their children. Fear drove these parents to break laws and commit ethical and moral violations so their children would be spared the pain of rejection from a college they wanted. Fear that their kids couldn’t handle the potential reality that awaited them unless paved over with lavish expenses.

You could make the case that these parents acted out of love. And I am sure that was part of it. But it was a love rooted in fear, and that slight distinction makes all the difference in the world.

I love the Enneagram because it asks us to confront the parts of us we would rather ignore, the fears we harbor that are real and constant and not easily soothed away. I love it because it levels the playing field between all of us. No income bracket is exempt from a core fear, no education level, no professional advancement. All of us, at the most basic level, fear something, and if we aren’t careful that fear will cause us to behave in ways that hurt us and the people we care about. Even more tragically? Fear, when not dealt with, will be passed down to the generation below us telling them the same thing. Not just that fear is real, but that fear has the upper hand.

And maybe that’s the real tragedy of the college cheating scandal. That parents so feared a reality their kids the parents couldn’t control, that they sent the message to their kids, “You can’t handle the world unless I mold the world around you.” Their fear was so big and so controlling and so invasive it not only colored the way these parents saw the world, it colored how the kids saw the world, and in turn how their kids saw themselves: unable to handle life as it really is. Unable to tackle difficulties as they really come. Unable to process hardships as they are sure to unfold.

I am a parent. I know the temptation to want my kids to think that I am just as capable of dispelling the monsters under the bed as I am the “monsters” in the world. I know what it is to be rattled by a core fear so strong, that you would do anything you can to eliminate that same fear in the lives of your children. I also know that nothing I do will soften the blows the world and life, simply by virtue of living, will inevitably throw at my kids. It’s unfair. And it’s terrifying. But it’s true.

We can’t keep life from happening our children, no matter how scary it is and how fearful we are of it.

What the Enneagram and college cheating scandal taught me, is that fear is personal. For all of us. Fear can drive us to do things we would never dream ourselves capable of doing, laying claim on a future, we thought was ours to write, but fear can take for its own. I learned that fear is an efficient teacher, if you let it, and a taskmaster if you aren’t careful. In other words, fear is real. But so is resilience. Resilience is only learned when we have courage enough to face the fear head-on and move through it. Do not avoid it. Do not go around it. Do not have a parent plow over it for you.

The monsters under the bed as adults are far scarier than the ones under the bed as kids. Fear does not go away no matter our age. It’s a part of life. Ours and our kids. So what will we let fear teach us? That we are far more capable than we think? That our kids are far more capable than we think? Or that we are pawn being played by the scary world outside our front door?

I think we are capable. I think our kids are capable. But I don’t think we’ll ever know how capable until we face head on the most vulnerable and parts of ourselves, facing our fears with honesty and acceptance and hope to rise above them no matter what they tell us is true.

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