My life has not been rich in physical danger. Danger has not sought me, and I have not sought it. I avoid undue risk wherever possible. I am mildly acrophobic. The one or two times I thought might be in immediate peril, my reaction was one of dead calm, and determination to do what I could to maximize my safety. No heart racing, no stomach fluttering, no queasy knees.

Every day, I drive around my megalopolis, on freeways and surface streets where fatal accidents occur with some regularity. Generally, I am not afraid at all. Every now and again, I have a genuine close call–never my fault, of course–and I cuss and say to myself I can’t believe what that guy just did and then I carry on. The incidents are common enough that I usually don’t even mention them to my husband later on. I don’t think about them later either; I do not fret about what might have happened.

And yet, my life is marred by fear. Not fear of real stuff, happening right now, but fear of what might happen.

“People wish to learn to swim and at the same time to keep one foot on the ground.” – Marcel Proust

Mr. Proust is showing us an excellent example of the effect of fear in our lives. Learning to swim expands our possibilities, allowing us to go on a boat without worry, or to jump in the deep end, and swim to the side. On the other hand, we might sink. Water might fill our lungs. We could die. Worse, other people at the pool might laugh at us because we’re such doofusses for not being able to do such a simple thing as swim. Polls show that fear of death is routinely outranked by fear of public speaking (i.e. public humiliation) in most people’s minds.

It’s worth noting that most children learn to swim pretty easily. They have enough trust in to believe that the water will hold them up. I have two friends who did not learn to swim as children, and in spite of attempting to learn as adults, neither has succeeded. I think they have somehow developed a core belief that swimming is impossible for them.

“A cat bitten once by a snake dreads even rope.” – Arab proverb, possibly, but also credited as Chinese idiogram

In our pre-verbal and early-verbal years, we have various frights–loud voices, scary shapes, dreams–that we cannot name. Not surprisingly, adults around us are often oblivious to what we are feeling. For instance, as a three-year-old, I had an unaccountable fear of women’s peep-toe shoes. I only know it was somehow connected to airplanes. I did go on an airplane flight at three, to visit extended family back east. Yet I remember enjoying that flight. I loved it, in fact.

“Only your mind can produce fear.” – Anonymous

I see why no one claims that one; it’s sort a duh realization. We need to worry to bring on that stomach-in-the-throat, bowel-gushing, hand-trembling paralysis. Worry requires taking what has happened to us in the past and projecting it into the future, without understanding the connection between our past and our present.

“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” – Marie Curie

But had Madame Curie understood radioactivity more thoroughly, she presumably could have avoided dying from the effects of it. At the same time, she couldn’t possibly have gained the understanding of radiation without exposing herself to it. Even if she had been fearful, she couldn’t be aware of what, exactly, she needed to fear.

Looks like we’re stuck. We need fear, but it mostly just holds us back.

“Fear is the most damnable, damaging thing to human personality in the whole world.” – William Faulkner

I agree.

News flash: While writing this, I solved the peep-toe-fear mystery. On that childhood visit back east, I was bitten by a dog. Not mauled, just bitten, and not the dog’s fault. It was bad enough for me to remember though, and bad enough that I can still find the scar on my hand all these years later. Anyway, I think, when we boarded the plane to come home, there was a woman across the aisle from us wearing peep-toe shoes, and I believe I became concerned that an animal could come along and bite off the exposed toes.

Try explaining that to an adult.

“…Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration…” – Frank Herbert, Dune.

Listen to Mr. Herbert, for he is telling us the truth.


Be Afraid. Very, Very Afraid.




  1. #1 by Silk Flowers on October 24, 2010 - 9:31 pm

    ohh…nice post but seriously?/?

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