Fear Itself

We’re addicted to fear. Even in the age of science and reason, we love a good scare. Who hasn’t pulled the covers up a little higher after watching a particularly frightening horror movie – or tucked their legs up just a little bit higher after a chapter or two of Stephen King bedtime reading? Give our minds just a little prick and even intelligent people begin to imagine all manner of supernatural horrors: The shadows in the moonlight become looming monsters, a strange sound becomes a deranged killer, a gust of wind becomes a ghost and even the drain becomes something we don’t want to look at too long.

We are so titillated by being scared that we find ways to make ourselves afraid. And it isn’t just with imaginary ghost and demons. We love roller coasters and racing and sky-diving. It’s the exhilaration of a controlled near-miss. We secretly enjoy jumping when the thunder cracks, and we love thinking about the exotic things that could kill us, no matter how small the odds. Shark attacks, the Y2K bug, American fiscal policy, asteroids, commercial flights, communism, dirty toilets, the Mayan calendar, dentists, atheists, killer bees and the like have all featured on millions of people’s list of secret fears. And has been the fodder of bad journalists and other fear-mongerers for decades.

Fear is a natural and useful chemical response to a threatening situation that prompts an immediate fight or flight response. Evolutionarily, it served to keep our ancestors from being eaten alive by predators or being killed by some other force of nature. In the modern world, it still plays a similar role. It keeps us alert and alive when faced with potentially life-threatening events. And it rewards us with a lovely rush of chemicals when we survive.

The problem is, though, that we have fewer and fewer real things which could kill us. Granted, there are many places in the world where poverty, disease, violence, war and natural disasters are real threats to people’s lives. But, as Hans Rosling teaches us, the world is getting better. Medical care, improved standards of living, longer lives, equal rights and slowing population growth mean that, overall, life is on the up.

Add to that Stephen Pinker’s findings that fewer and fewer people are dying globally as a result of violence and war, and you have a very different world to the one we had four decades ago. (Except, of course for the looming environmental crises and the depletion of resources which seem to be the inevitable result of this improvement in living conditions.)

Overall, we have fewer things which could actually harm us. I reckon this is perhaps the main reason why we invent more and more things to frighten ourselves with. And surely this is also the reason we have, as a society, become so obsessed with what passes for news on television and in the printed media. It seems that news organisations these days simply salivate at a story that could potentially scare their audience – even when it turns out to be a non-event. Worse, so-called ‘documentary’ channels have whole programmes dedicated to unlikely, if not patently false threats. Most of the news, no, most of the implications behind the news are as fictional and as rooted in titillation as a bad horror movie. Most actuality channels even go so far as to put sexy little reporters / ‘investigators’ in harm’s way just to make it even more so.

So the news and movies and documentaries and fiction feed our desire for fears that we can overcome, and, in so doing, we also get to feel that our more realistic fears can be overcome.

But our real fears mostly remain deeply hidden. We don’t like thinking about the things that really could hurt us. Heart diseases and cancer, car accidents, the loss of loved ones, crime, insurmountable debt, failure, loneliness, ridicule, empty lives, retrenchments and other more rational fears are not things we like to dwell on too much. It’s the reason we have insurance policies. And hospitals. And religion.

Our arcane imaginary fears and our more deeply hidden, more rational ones are closely related. In fact, I contend that we are so intrigued by the former because they allow us to escape from the later. Moreover, our imaginary fears allow us the thrill of being able to overcome them, if only vicariously, and to have a happily-ever-after moment. The ghost didn’t get us. We dodged the demon. The bump in the night was just the roof beams settling. Everything is normal and safe when we wake up in the morning, when we have our feet and minds back on solid ground. We experience the rush of adrenalin and the soothing effects of the noradrenaline which follows when the fear is removed. And we hope that we will have the courage to strive for the same effect if any of our more rational fears ever come true.

We are all of us not merely liable to fear, we are also prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration… The contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage. (J.T. MacCurdy, The Structure of Morale – as quoted – repeatedly – by M. Gladwell in David & Goliath)

But there’s an insidious problem with fear: we are so enamoured by our irrational fears and how they provide us with a happy, feel-good resolution, that we pass them on to other people like we would a gift. But this is one of the most frightening and poisonous things we can do. Especially when we do it to young people. And especially when adults mix imaginary fears with real ones in order to try to control and coerce their kids.

I’m not talking about how we allow kids to watch horror movies (including the ones masquerading as TV News). I’m talking about how we make them afraid of failure, afraid of asking too many questions and afraid of going against the grain – in case they disappoint us / break our hearts / waste our money / make us angry. And in doing this, we make it almost impossible for them to overcome the (irrational) fear of breaking the mould – in case they have to confront a more realistic fear: disappointing us. (I feel that disappointing an adult is for a child as realistically frightening as retrenchment might be for an adult.)

We have things backwards. We should first be spreading the word on how good it feels to beat fear. This provides a scaffold and an architecture in which people can then place, understand and confront anything scary which comes their way. This allows young people in particular to want to do something about what makes them afraid. It might even be the way we ultimately solve the crises facing humanity: poverty, cruelty, environmental destruction, lingering inequality, religious fundamentalism and ignorance.

We need to show our young people that the monsters under their beds can be evaporated with a clear mind, and that being different can be a great thing. This gives them the confidence and courage and feel-good inner chemicals they need in order to make fighting fear a habit.

And who knows how many of the more pressing and real problems a new generation of noradrenaline-fueled fear fighters might solve? Perhaps if enough young people are taught this fear-conquering mindset, they will get to work fighting, and conquering the truly big, truly frightening monsters.

One of my biggest fears is that this does not happen.






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