Fear Itself

Fear is a natural emotion. It’s a feeling induced by a perceived threat that can cause us to run, hide, or freeze in terror. Unless you’re like SM on the “World With No Fear” episode of Invisibila, you know what it’s like to have fear.

In our culture, we’re raised to be ashamed of our fear. If we admit to our fear, we’re reminded that Franklin D. Roosevelt once told America, “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It works best when we ignore its historical context.

Why is this quotation the prescription for our collective phobias? Has it ever actually helped anyone? Please let me know if FDR was the reason for your bravery. That is as patriotic as you can get.

I don’t think we should be ashamed of fear. Rather, we should embrace it. Fear is a part of who we are.

Some people are afraid of spiders, some people are afraid of high places, some people are afraid of clowns.

These fears all stem from the same feeling: self-preservation.

What if that spider has enough venom to kill you? What if you slip and fall off that ledge? What if that clown is actually a serial killer?

We can thank John Wayne Gacy for that last one.

Sometimes we grow out of our fears. By “grow out,” I mean that we become desensitized to our fears through repeated exposure. In some cases, this saves you from fearing something on the less rational side of reality.

Maybe you live somewhere in which the vast majority of spiders are harmless. You also keep in mind that spiders catch other critters that wander into your home. No need to be afraid, right?

Source: Michael Podger, Unsplash

However, we can become desensitized to a fault.

For example, I’m not afraid of driving my car even though it’s the most dangerous activity I do every single day. I periodically remind myself to stay wary. In one instant, one wrong move can cause one fatal accident.

No one should ever feel 100% comfortable on the road. That’s when mistakes happen.

I remember a mistake that happened to me once.

Source: Santiago Gomez, Unsplash

I was on the edge of 18 and had been driving for nearly two years. I was cruising the highway with my then-girlfriend. We were heading home from an impromptu shopping trip out of town. The radio was jamming a new CD and I was head-banging like it was my own personal concert.

Suddenly, I caught a red blur in the corner of my eye. I cut the steering wheel hard to avoid it. In vain.

A car blew past a stop sign and struck me. My door took the impact, which sent the car into a ditch, rolling and rolling for what felt like an eternity. I white-knuckled the steering wheel and braced myself.

Instead of panicking, my brain offered this thought: This is it. You’re in a car accident and this might be the end. You had a good run, right? I felt an odd sense of peace I had never experienced before.

After the final tumble, the car settled upright on its wheels.

I remember the initial silence after the car stopped. Then there were people rushing over to check on us. Then there were sirens. Eventually, my dad found me. The rest of the night was a blur.

Source: Simon Abrams, Unsplash

Miraculously, we were fine other than a case of whiplash.

Life went on, but not without a newfound apprehension of the road. I learned that other drivers may not follow the rules of the road intentionally or otherwise. At every intersection, I make sure other cars actually stop at intersections and my foot is always ready to stomp the brakes.

I also gained a new perspective on the fear of death.

There is no rhyme or reason. Death comes knocking when it pleases. For me, the scariest part is how mundane a deadly situation can be. A simple accident could turn a random Wednesday into your last. That’s it. No do-overs.

Before the crash, I never thought about how I would die. I was still in the “invincible teenager” state of mind and I never considered dying as an option. Like Yossarian, my goal was to live forever or die trying. Since then, I’ve come to terms with my mortality.

Source: Wendy Scofield, Unsplash

Even though self-preservation drives our fears, it’s interesting how diverse our fears can be.

Some people suffer from Coimetrophobia: the fear of cemeteries. I’m the opposite—I find cemeteries to be calm and peaceful. No matter how noble, selfish, rich, or poor someone was, they are all equal in the cemetery, the size of their headstone be damned. Rather than a place of fear, I see them as a place of rest. Is that not why we bury the deceased?

One of my irrational fears is that one day I’ll walk through a cemetery and see my name on a headstone. When I inspect it, I’ll see my final date as the night of the accident. What if I wasn’t so lucky back then? Would a ghost experience fear out of habit? Did my brain slow down my sense of time so I can experience a lifetime while the car continues to tumble?

Maybe the fact that I still experience fear means there’s someone living to preserve. When my car was rolling, my brain temporarily disabled my fears and I wasn’t afraid of what might happen. I now know that sense of peace was actually my acceptance of death. And that terrifies me.

We all have something to fear and it shouldn’t be fear itself. Fear is a reminder that you’re alive.

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