Lately I’ve been thinking about fear, particularly fear that divides us even as it holds us in its grip. We are all afraid of homicidal sociopaths with guns. Fear begets fear, and our reactions to that common fear differ widely: some of us are afraid that we won’t be allowed to arm ourselves adequately to defend against homicidal sociopaths with guns; some of us are afraid that anyone we allow to have a gun might turn out to be a homicidal sociopath.
By evolutionary design, fear is not a rational state: it demands a split-second decision to fight or flee. Some years ago, when we as a nation faced great crisis, a leader reminded us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. He called it nameless, unreasoning, and unjustified, and accurately noted that it hampers our ability to move forward.
Arguing with someone who is frightened does not make him less afraid. When a child comes into your room in the middle of the night because he has had a nightmare, you cannot reason with him that it wasn’t real. He has experienced that nightmare, and its effects on him are very real: elevated heart rate, adrenaline release, feelings of helplessness, sleep disruption. You can tell him that the nightmare is over and that he is okay, and you can offer something that will comfort and reassure him. Dismissing or belittling his fear will not diminish it in any way, but recognizing it and reconnecting him with normalcy will make it possible to move beyond it.
The tricky thing about fear is that it is based in reality, no matter how tenuously. The things we are afraid of really are out there, which is why reason doesn’t work against fear. But naming those things that frighten us gives us an opportunity to develop strategies for dealing with them. The next time your child wakes with a nightmare, he may remember what you said and did the last time and be able to go back to sleep on his own. If you find out that his nightmare may have been triggered by a TV show he watched in the evening, you can change your family viewing habits.
Fear is not banished by argument, but it can be surmounted when recognized. We need to listen to each other, to acknowledge even those fears we don’t share. Then, with these concerns on the table, we need to craft responses that address them all – not just knee-jerk reactions to the loudest or most alarmed.