In recent weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of fear. There are few emotions that affect our ability to reason more than fear, particularly the fear of death.
As a nation, indeed as a world, we’ve been grappling with this kind of existential fear for the past several months.
There is fear of the unknown, fear of getting sick, fear of dying, fear of our way of life evaporating before our eyes, fear of going broke.
We seem to have broken down into two camps. The first are those who are allowing their fears to overwhelm their ability to reason and, as a result, are living in a state of suspended animation, somewhere between fully and halfway living. The second are those who are controlling their fear, transcending it, and using it to make their lives better.
Fear is a natural part of life. Anyone who tells you they never feel it is lying, crazy, or both.
On its own, the feeling of fear doesn’t equal weakness; but how we react to it determines whether it is a positive or a negative in our lives.
Let’s define the word. The Cambridge Dictionary defines fear as “an unpleasant emotion or thought that you have when you are frightened or worried by something dangerous, painful, or bad that is happening or might happen.”
The key to the definition is the last three words – “or might happen.” The things we fear might happen, but they also might not, and this uncertainty debilitates us and causes anxiety for many.
I have many fears, including losing my ability to support my family, not being able to defend them if called upon to do so, and dying young suddenly so I can’t grow old with my wife and see my kids grow up.
Those fears are a part of my life, but they don’t control me. If I let them control me, I would never take any risks and would live a safe, antiseptic, and ultimately unhappy life.
Life is unpredictable. Bad things do happen to good people. How we react to these possibilities tells us a lot about ourselves.
Control Your Fears
To me, Mike Tyson is one of the baddest men who has ever lived. People of my generation remember when, before the shocking Buster Douglas fight, Tyson seemed to be invincible. He exuded a cocky confidence every time he went into the ring that drew people to him. He seemed fearless and unbeatable. Yet, despite this façade, even Tyson felt fear every time he fought.
“Fear is the greatest obstacle to learning. But fear is your best friend. Fear is like fire. If you learn to control it, you let it work for you. If you don’t learn to control it, it’ll destroy you and everything around you…So one must never allow fear to develop and build up without having control over it, because if you don’t you won’t be able to achieve your objective or save your life.”
I love the analogy of fear to fire. Flames, on their own, are not something to be feared; in fact, fire is life-sustaining and necessary to life. It becomes dangerous and deadly when it is allowed to spread uncontrollably. The key to staying safe around fire is to control it and use it for your purposes.
Tyson notes, contradictorily, that fear is both an obstacle to our learning and also our best friend. How can it be both an obstacle and our best friend? Think of the fire analogy again. When fire is used to cook our food and sustain us, it can be thought of as our “best friend.” When it’s burning down our homes, it’s an obstacle. It can be both sustainer and destroyer.
If we remain irrationally afraid of fire even when it’s controlled, we won’t be able to live very long. I’m thinking of my furnace that burns in my basement. Those flames heat my house, provide me with hot water, and ensure I can cook my food. It’s fire under control. If I let a fear of fire control me, I would be cold during the winter, hungry, and taking only cold showers.
I respect the fact that my furnace is potentially dangerous, and I would call a trained professional if I had major, potentially dangerous, issues with it.
The fact is without feeling fear, we would be completely reckless, so it acts as a mechanism to provide us with good judgment. It’s our best friend because it prevents us from acting stupidly to our detriment. We allow it to become an obstacle when don’t control it.
Think of the rare genetic disorder Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis (CIPA), which makes people unable to feel physical pain.
At first blush, this sounds like a good thing. After all, who wants to feel physical pain. Yet, it is extraordinarily dangerous because that pain acts as a mechanism that regulates our actions. We generally fear pain and without that fear we are more likely to put ourselves into dangerous situations.
Fear acts like our pain response. It regulates how we act so we don’t do reckless things without considering the consequences and taking precautions.
Tyson, importantly, focuses on that fact that we have to control our fears. Returning to the previous section where I discussed the things I fear, if I didn’t have those fears I might act in an incredibly reckless way. I might take actions that could harm my ability to support my family or that would cause me to die very young.
My fears, thus, force me to exercise good judgment. Yet, they don’t paralyze me or make me indecisive. In fact, they do the opposite. I’ve learned to control them by thinking through and preparing so I know how to react if I find myself in one of those fearful situations. Think of it like soldiers drilling and training for war. They train so much to ensure their actions become automatic in chaotic situations.
I don’t want to lose the ability to provide for my family, but if something were to happen I’ve built a network of people, learned skills, and would take any job, no matter how menial, to provide. I also take steps to not do stupid things that could lead to a loss of my job.
Sure, I fear not being able to provide, but it’s under control because I take reasonable steps to prevent it from happening AND I know what I would do if it were to happen.
I don’t want to die young, but I’ve ensured I have sufficient life insurance to continue providing and have given my family many good memories so that when remembering me they would smile and know that I loved them.
I also obsess over keeping myself healthy by physical training, eating right, and taking the proper supplements. These are steps I can take to keep myself in the best health to hopefully prevent that fear from coming true.
Sure, I fear leaving them too early, but I’m taking to steps to make it less likely to happen, and I’ve prepared so if it does happen things would be as easy as possible for my loved ones considering the circumstances.
Jeff Putnam in his book Setting Yourself On Fire discussed some of the darkest and most defining times of his life to show how he overcame his fears and rose from the ashes to create the kind of life he wants. I highly recommend this book to all, particularly to those going through difficult circumstances.
What is to be done?
The key actions to control your fears and turn them into your best friend are:
- Search your mind and heart and name your fears
- Acknowledge those fears and don’t ignore them
- Take reasonable actions to prevent them from happening in the first place
- Prepare your response and make plans if they were to come to fruition. This includes running through different scenarios in your head, in a sense drilling your response so it becomes automatic
By taking these steps, you will eliminate the uncertainty and better control your fears.
Life is never a perfectly safe endeavor. There is always some risk inherent in it. Don’t let that risk prevent you from living life on your own terms. Fear can be an impediment to action or it could provide us with the tools and motivation to act. The choice is each of ours.
We are living in a particularly fearful time. You can see it in people’s faces. Fear, however, doesn’t have to be an obstacle. It could and should make us stronger, more resilient, and more prepared to deal with anything life throws at us.