Fear. What does it mean to fear something? Used as a verb, at one time, and a very long time it was — post-Hastings — it meant to frighten or feel fear in oneself. Used as a verb, it comes from the Middle English word feren, which evolved from Old English’s fær, which might beg the question: if words and language evolve, are they naturally selected?
While that’s old-school, it’s not hard to see the frightening leap to be afraid of something, even something you expect. You might be afraid to get up when the alarm on your phone rings because it means another day’s drudgery at work. Or still asleep, a door creaks, pushed aside by the cat, or a branch scratches against the windowpane above your bed, and you wake startled, heart hammering. Under the covers you squeeze into a fetal ball, eyes closed, because what if that noise wasn’t a branch or door hinge in need of WD-40 and a cat in need of a scolding? What if it’s some meth-addled cretin looking to score a video game he can pawn for his next fix? Or what if there really are monsters under your bed? Just make them go away.
But, it seems a leap of faith to find yourself in Godfearing reverential awe of God. That’s what it means to fear God. Though most people seem to think the deity is something to cower from lest blessings not befall upon your house, and rather your house fall upon you. Ask Job about that.
And that’s what it seems we fear the most — the house falling in on us no matter what. It’s what I’m afraid of, sometimes, or rather its among my many fears — fear is now a noun, the naturally selected necessity in our emotional bank to alert us to danger. Useful on the savanna when a lion is stalking us, or when our Spidey-sense tingles when our enemies have set up an ambush. I like the idea of Spider-man’s Spider-sense, a hero’s enhanced sense of real danger, not the irrational stuff that usually gets to us, the stuff that has the house caving in no matter what.
I can see in myself the tiniest bits of this irrationality, as when the other day driving home from a freelance assignment I was listening to my favorite sports talk radio station out of Dallas and one of the hosts was reading ad copy for a car maintenance shop. The only words I heard were “flat tire”.
“Shut up,” I said. I didn’t want to hear about flat tires while driving. I especially didn’t want to hear how costly tire repair could be. Not then.
Afterward, I kind of snorted a laugh. I had just spoken to a disembodied voice coming from my car’s radio, as if the radio host were next to me in the front seat. I didn’t want to hear about flat tires or anything costing money at a time when my belt is cinched so tight the belt has creditors making harassing phone calls to me.
But that irrational fear seems with me all the time. As silly as it was to argue with a radio ad,what I really didn’t want to do was jinx my subconscious mind and somehow create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hearing those two words was bad mojo. It was like repeating Lord Voldemort and Beetlejuice.
Bad mojo — I need less of it. And maybe by writing about it — maybe I’ll exorcise that fear, beat the mojo, cast it out like I was a curandero, make my tire invulnerable to any costly repair. Should I rub an egg over myself and draw the evil out with it? Might as well blow smoke in my face, too, for all the good it will do.
(Cough. Cough.) So, fear. Look how irrational it is to fear things. But my alert system seems as if its at DEFCON 1 lately without any evidence the missiles are in the air.
One pop-psych self-help book I’ve read calls what I’m experiencing “Waiting for the axe to fall.” To sum up the author’s argument: I should embrace the fear, stroke it like you might the cat. But, have you ever tried to pet a cat that’s afraid of you? It either hisses and bares its fangs to frighten you away, or even more sensibly, retreats and hides under the bed.
Still, I think I understand what the pop psychologist means: perhaps a better word would be managing fear. Another bit more reputable pop psych writer Martin Seligman — in his book Learned Optimism, he at least outlines his research and shows how he came to his conclusions — suggests an evidence-based argument with yourself, a to-be or not to-be moment I suppose, with fewer outrages against the slings and arrows Fortune throws at us.
Maybe, though, we need the outrage, the anger, especially when Fortune, as it often is, out of our control?
Meditation helps — and it too has been embraced in a pop-psych positive thinking way. Sitting and practicing mindfulness meditation, in which focusing on the breath helps you focus on the thoughts you have moment by moment and still them, has helped stem fear sometimes and made my mental focus somewhat better. And a deep breath can quench butterflies or slow anxiousness, say, before a job interview or speaking publicly. But, it’s no cure-all.
Like the other methods, it’s a tool to quiet the mind when we’re ready instead to talk to sports radio hosts as we drive.
But genuine fear of the axe falling is real enough, not irrational. It’s a necessity. I have to take up the slings and arrows courageously and act, knowing that success may or may not be guaranteed. I have to have the determination no matter.
Since this will probably go up before the Fourth, I was just reminded, while listening to a speech of Barbara Ehrenreich’s on Optimism and the cult of positive thinking, of the courage and determination the Founders took: by signing the Declaration of Independence they committed an act of treason against the crown; they could very well have died and some did just by signing their names to that document.
There’s a real reason I think we need fear. It’s not just to caution us to the dangers of the roaring lions around us — and there are plenty here in the U.S. from the top down ready to rend our society further apart — but to remind us nothing is guaranteed. Still, we have to have courage to resist and take action not only politically but personally.
Our best fear quencher is testing reality, perhaps embracing it even when its claws are out, or especially when its claws are out, and embrace and accept what we find under the layers, without embracing magical thinking of any sort that says the world will be a better place if we just think it so.