Some thoughts on fear

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.

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2 responses to “Some thoughts on fear

  1. Lots of food for thought here. Of course it makes me think of what I fear. I fear the intangibles the most. The nameless things. The things you don’t want to put into words for fear they’ll then have power over you because they’ve been given a name. Do kids have that kind of fear? I’m too old and don’t remember. Perhaps a nightmare is the way a child confronts that nameless dread and gives it shape. Oh, oh. Here I go again. Post-apocalyptic ramblings. Thanks for this food for thought, dear!

    • I don’t know — it seems to me that an unnamed fear has greater power because it isn’t well-defined. It’s edges are blurrier, which means it can seem to be much larger than it may in fact be. The intangible is so frightening precisely because it is unknown. What’s that saying? “When choosing between two evils, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” With the devil you know, at least you know what to expect.

      And fear of the unknown is by no means the exclusive province of children. I know adults who are compelled to arrange their lives (and the lives of those around them) in reaction to the possible dangers that might lie in their paths, dangers that most people consider too remote to worry about. Dismissing those fears as irrational doesn’t make them any less terrifying to those who perceive them. I think that was my main point: we won’t be able to move forward in this national conversation if we each insist that our concerns are more real and urgent than anyone else’s.

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