The Power of Fear is a Curious Thing

Americans have a weird love/hate relationship with fear. Most of the time, we do everything we can to avoid it. We mask fear with anger, shy away from scary things and go to great lengths to protect ourselves from all that is terrifying. Other times we thrive on it. Halloween is a holiday that celebrates fear. People flock to roller coasters and other scary activities, like sky diving and bungee jumping. Horror movies are extremely popular. While we busily evade fear in our daily lives, we run directly toward it for entertainment. Fear is so prevalent in our lives that it makes you question just why that is. The answer is a disturbing one.

Fear is a big motivator. When people get scared, we have two options – fight or flight – and, because our survival might be on the line, either behavior is performed quickly. Because of this ingrained response, fear doesn’t promote critical thinking; it encourages knee-jerk reactions. Fear can override logic, compassion, and cognitive flexibility (the ability to come up with myriad solutions). It isn’t rational, so if you scare someone badly enough, they become willing to do things they normally wouldn’t. As such, fear is an incredibly powerful force and it is one that is driving much of what is troubling in American society today.

Fear is behind many of our worst foreign policy decisions. After 9/11, fear of being attacked again led us to start two wars we knew we had no chance of winning. It led us to torture people and suspend some civil liberties. Fear is what keeps us from negotiating with our enemies when cooperation would serve us better. Fear is what is driving many of our worst domestic policies as well. Fear of the Other (immigration, racism, sexism), anxiety about processes we cannot quantify (education, environmentalism), worry about being too soft (healthcare, welfare, social services) and even the dread of losing control (religion, gun violence) are the maps by which we are guiding ourselves and they are doing a lot of harm.

Fear is even affecting the way we label ourselves. Despite the clear examples offered by other countries doing far better than we are (in measures of happiness, productivity, lifespan, health), Americans hold fast to our claim of exceptionalism – because we fear the pain of our identity crisis if we’re no longer “the best” – and allow ourselves to dig deeper into despair. Even at a personal level, the power of fear is what keeps many of us working with the devils on our shoulders rather than heeding the advice of our better angels. We allow the fear of falling behind, getting hurt, looking silly, and failing to keep us lonely, in debt and exceedingly busy. We are a people who never rest and rarely trust lest we make a mistake and end up with less than we deserve. Fear is killing us.

The thing is, like with most emotions, there is nothing inherently bad about fear. It is a primary emotion and one that we need to survive. Fear is what makes us run when something bad is about to arrive. It is what makes us cautious when venturing into unknown territory. Fear provides the adrenaline that makes roller coasters and horror movies fun. It can even provide a way to intensely connect with another person. Fear often is what keeps us alive and healthy. It is only bad when, like now, we don’t know what to do with it. Fear is overwhelming us.

This wasn’t always the case. In his first inaugural address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously stated, “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself….” FDR did not let the typical politician’s fear of being unpopular stop him from putting into place programs that were necessary to get the United States back on its feet. Nor did he allow the fear of challenging the status quo of strict gender roles prevent him from putting women into men’s jobs in order to win the war. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was just as fearless. She disregarded public opinion and even physical danger in order to advocate for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. Her thoughts on fear? “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.” Both Roosevelts did what had to be done and we are richer for it.

History is replete with examples of people who demonstrated courage in order to get things done. Alice Paul conquered the fear of public ridicule and torture in order to win women the vote. Rosa Parks mastered similar fears in order to sit down on a bus. Martin Luther King Jr. overcame his fear of death in order to fight for civil rights. Dolores Huerta surmounted her fear of arrest and beatings to advocate for the rights of workers, immigrants and women. And 15 year old Malala Yousafzai trounced her fear of death by facing down the Taliban and continuing to advocate for education for women.

In fact, there are numerous examples of ordinary people who have learned what to do with fear. Living with it and moving forward in spite of fear doesn’t necessarily mean making grand gestures; all it takes is the willingness to tolerate that uncomfortable feeling. Too many people make the mistake of believing that courage is the absence of fear when, in actuality, it is merely the managing of it. So how does one manage fear? There are many strategies – everything from deep breathing and relaxation to challenging irrational thoughts, and distraction – but one of the best is telling yourself that all you need is 10 seconds of courage. That’s it. Ten seconds. Surely all of us, both individually and as a nation, have those 10 courageous seconds within us. If we use them, perhaps we can master our fears instead of letting them conquer us. And we need to do that because the thought of continuing to be driven by fear is, well, scary.

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