To prepare for the new year I decided, during the last few weeks of 2014, to binge on productivity books and podcasts. Inevitably some fluffier motivational material found its way in.
At the same time, while researching a creative project, I read Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear.
Despite its title, the bulk of the book is about personal safety through the early prediction of violent behavior in spouses, co-workers, and so on. But in the last chapter de Becker goes into detail about the physical and emotional experience of fear.
Reading this book led me to notice, for the first time, how prevalent the discourse of fear is in self-help material. How we bandy the concept of fear, without thinking too much about whether we’re misuing it.
Gavin de Becker defines real fear as follows:
Real fear is a signal intended to be very brief, a mere servant of intuition … [it] is not an emotion like sadness or happiness, either of which might last a long while. It is not a state, like anxiety. True fear is a survival signal that sounds only in the presence of danger … [A]ny time your dreaded outcome cannot be reasonably linked to pain or death and it isn’t a signal in the presence of danger, then it really shouldn’t be confused with fear.
Real fear is concrete, present and dangerous. It’s the “bone stuck in the throat” (to use Lacan’s formula) which yanks you back to the reality of the present moment. De Becker notes:
Aside from those times when being still is a strategy, real fear is not paralyzing—it is energizing.
Contrary to popular representations, true fear is a rush. Your heart begins to race, your adrenaline surges, numbing you to pain, and as the blood rushes to your muscles, preparing your body to fight or to flee, you feel sick in your stomach. Time slows down.
This is the fear of guns, knives, maniacs, out of control vehicles, and tigers. It’s not an existential metaphor. Like the fear of painting your authentic whatever.
And yet we distinctly experience these tell-tale signs of fear when life and limb are clearly not in peril: in a job interview, on a first date, before we walk on stage.
De Becker argues that in these cases what we’re doing is linking the mundane situation to death. He offers public speaking as a typical case:
Those who fear public speaking actually fear the loss of identity that attaches to performing badly, and that is firmly rooted in our survival needs. … [T]he fear of getting up and addressing five hundred people at the annual convention of professionals in your field is not just the fear of embarrassment—it is linked to the fear of being perceived as incompetent, which is linked to the fear of loss of employment, loss of home, loss of family, your ability to contribute to society, your value, in short, your identity and your life.
If fear is always fear of death, it’s easy to distinguish between real fear, where the threat of death is imminent, and metaphorical fear, where the threat of death is in a vision, a possible outcome somewhere down the line.
Look across the table. Is the HR manager a tiger? Take a peek at the audience. Are any of them clutching a submachine gun? Is your date brandishing the soup spoon in a threatening manner?
Put that way, many of our frequent fears sound ludicrous. But they’re not. Whether real or metaphorical, our experience is the same.
Our so-called “stone age mind” fails to cope with all this conceptual tomfoolery, sending flight-or-fight signals to our bodies. In the moment, fear of failure is as real as a pouncing tiger. The only difference is that in the case of failure the link to death is internal: there is nothing “out there” to fight or flee from. The danger is in our mind. That doesn’t make the experience any less terrifying, but it does give us a tool to work with.
De Becker claims that we can loosen the hold of our metaphorical fears by identifying the links between the activity that frightens us and the absolutely certain, indefatigable march of doom.
Taking up the chain, examining each link, and seeing how distant death is from the present circumstance, releases us from the chokehold of fear. If not from its grip.
That this investigation is possible proves to us that the fear is metaphorical. There’s scant time for rational thought when the cold breath of death is visible in the room.
I don’t mean to deny how hard it is to muster the presence of mind to step back and to observe a situation as it is when in the throes of fear – whether real or metaphorical. But it is possible to do so. And like all habits, you improve with practice.
Unfortunately, some of us keep pushing ever outwards from our comfort zone, to where the fear of failure stalks, reeking of death.
Something compels us. Maybe it’s the fear itself. The rush of it.