A Storytelling Serial
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My mother, born one month before the stock-market crash of 1929 and a child of the Great Depression, believed it her calling to be a maternal fearmonger, and she was great at it.
In growing up, I escaped turning into a complete mass of quivering jelly because of (1) the example of my father, a man with the supreme self-confidence to do anything he could imagine—and he imagined a lot; (2) the DNA he gave me, which made me prone to go my own way without listening to anyone else’s opinion; and (3) the light of courage that for many years peeped around the edges of my mom’s fears and showed me people can sometimes act brave even when they aren’t.
It helped, too, that my dad’s constant energy and escapades often distracted my mother enough that she occasionally forgot to voice her fears for me, although I know she lay awake at night and fretted until her worries were pushed out by fresh anxieties my dad introduced the next morning. It was easier for me to ignore what she didn’t say, despite my awareness of her wordless apprehensions hanging in the space between us.
Life with my polar-opposite parents of Doom and Zoom mirrored my religious upbringing. When I attended church each week, I was never sure whether I would get the version of Christianity with the vengeful God and the plagues and all the dire consequences of bad choices—or the bracing spiritual tradition of having no fear, being bold and strong, and depending on an omnipresent and omnipotent protector.
From self-confidence to fear
I reflect on the many things I dared and risked in my early days; but having ingested a smorgasbord of mixed messages, I certainly didn’t plunge into life because I believed the world predictable or fair. Nor did I expect external rescue, either from gods or humans.
Instead, I jumped headlong into every decision and situation out of the arrogance and assurance of youth. I trusted myself to overcome all obstacles and evils.
Now I know my mother was right to fear that the forces of darkness are stronger than my cleverness and determination. More clearly than ever, I see the world as a place of danger and pestilence rather than as a just universe of reward for valor. Even if applied with an abundance of caution, courage can be imprudent, can scar us for life (physically or emotionally or both), and can kill us.
Both my dad and I have been lucky.
With the passage of time, though, my temperament has diverged from his. He never outgrew his self-confidence, while I’ve gone awry too many times to maintain the same brash, I-can-handle-anything attitude I led with for the first half of my life.
But if I’m no longer my father, am I fated to become my mother, whose fears finally grew so strong that she stopped living before she died?
I read a lot about handling fear. In fact, one of the first live-author presentations I ever attended, decades ago, was by Susan Jeffers, author of the classic Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, first published in 1987. Over the years, I’ve collected a few cognitive strategies for dealing with fear.
Many don’t work. A popular recommendation is to explore the worst that can happen. Embarrassment? Making a mistake? Failing? Oh, but there is no failure, say the experts. It’s all a learning experience.
Hah. Look at history. Or current events. We have everything to lose from a misstep or bad luck—health, love, basic security, freedom, life. Learning can be fatal, or at least permanently painful.
We’re told that even though much of life is a risk, we should rationally balance the probabilities and not pull back from engagement out of fear. After all, what are the percentages of people who become paralyzed from hang gliding, who actually contract a particular disease, who end up divorced, who die?
Well, the last category is an easy answer: 100 percent, eventually. It’s the when that can be a mystery. But if we want to stake our decisions on actuarial numbers, we’ll just be rolling the dice. Any set of odds actually depends on complex variables in a fast-moving world that constantly changes, and figures can vary depending on the particular data used and how it’s manipulated, by which scientist or expert and in what artificial context.
In the real world, numbers are abstract, and we know less than we like to think we do. What was true there and then may have no bearing on here and now. History repeats—and it doesn’t.
Life is random.
Fear as the reason
Let’s consider—seriously—that nearly all human events and actions are controlled by fear. Fear of loss, fear of lack, fear for safety, fear in being alone or insignificant or disconnected, fear of death, fear of the afterlife or its nonexistence, fear of being ignored or forgotten.
Wars have always been fought over these fears. Laws are enacted and enforced. Movements are started; protests are waged. We hide in safe places; we build walls; we buy guns. We treat children, spouses, friends, and pets as extensions of ourselves. We cling to religious dogma. We write books. We run for office and seek promotions and sell our souls for attention. We hoard everything from food to downloads.
Long ago, I heard that in politics and crime, the trick is to follow the money. I believe it’s more telling to follow the fear. We can look at a person’s behavior and ask, “What fear are they avoiding?” After stripping away surface appearances, going below conditioned responses, and repeating the question as many times as needed, we can usually find the underlying and motivating dread.
Society has developed a broad range of professionals who know this and earn a living from spreading fear: doctors, politicians, scientists, police officers, lawyers, journalists, publishers, the people at my utility company who remind me that my home’s gas lines for which I’m responsible are aging and may dissolve at any moment.
And because the problems, the risks, the losses are authentic, and we often have no accurate way to calculate the odds, we’re right to be frightened.
A reason for needless fears
Do we manufacture unnecessary fears? Of course. Sometimes, when the real terror is too much to face, misdirection helps by giving us a sense of control. I’m comforted by my refusal to skydive, because it’s a fear I can choose to avoid, an active choice that diverts me from looking at my real fear—which is that I’ll screw up the jump because I’m no longer as smart and fit as I used to be, and maybe I’m not one of those people who will grow old gracefully and be able to stay active, but there’s nothing I can do to stop the rapid passage of time.
If I looked beyond the open door of the plane, I’d be devastated by the real possibilities of mental and physical decline. So for now, it’s a relief to displace the nebulous fear—the specter that I’m aging badly and might not be able to change such an agonizing truth—onto a physical parachute that actually has a low statistical likelihood of causing death.
New approaches to fear
To avoid becoming a victim of debilitating phobias and to keep engaging in life while I still breathe, I’m using new coping mechanisms these days. One is resigned self-deprecation, a kind of philosophical sigh: yes, it (anything from eating romaine lettuce to walking across the street) is probably going to kill me, but that’s okay as long as I don’t hurt anyone else or cause much inconvenience.
Another strategy is to ask what I might gain from the minuscule chance disaster doesn’t ensue from the foolhardy decision to step outside my door or connect with another human being. Fortunately, I still have that adventurous DNA (thanks, Dad), with a limited tolerance for monotony despite its comfortable safety. That means I can always tell myself at least my debacle would be interesting.
Most days, the craving for variety is stronger than my fear; and while I’m no adrenaline junkie, and I don’t need thrills and chills, the slow torture of unending sameness makes me long for the risks of travel or of trying to find a socially distant seat in a darkened movie theater (the protective bubble I’ve always sought in any auditorium, which means for many decades I’ve been ahead of the new theater-health curve).
Something more important
Each of us must ultimately figure out what matters more than the unknown factor and unreliable prediction of what we have to lose. As Martin Luther King Jr. said during a speech in Detroit on June 23, 1963—my father’s thirty-fifth birthday—“If a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”
By the time my dad had enthusiastically survived five more years of new perils and turned forty, both MLK and John Kennedy had been assassinated.
When we recognize the personal meaning that outweighs even the risk of death, we can then push our real and legitimate fears aside and get on with living fully. And when we believe in anything that much, we will move forward even if our only hope is authenticity and integrity.
How do you handle fears, whether real or imagined? Below, please share—if doing so isn’t too harrowing.