The Gift of Fear

Betty blue bordered (2)Last week we considered the idea of feeling fear and acting anyway by calling on courage. Though I want fear fighting to be the main focus of these Lenten emails, it would be imprudent not to bring balance to the idea.

In the book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker reminds us that sometimes fear is a blessing. He distinguishes fear from anxiety or worry or hesitation by stating that true fear is always response to an immediate danger or is connected to pain or death. It is an outpouring of our intuition—a word women are comfortable with but men might prefer to call a gut reactionthat excites us to action. De Becker pleads with us to not second guess or rationalize away such fear, but instead, trust our intuition and follow its guide because it results from our mind’s drive to survive. Even before we formulate thoughts about our senses’ stimuli, our brain has connected our past experiences to our current situation and determined if we are in danger. If so, it demands immediate action. Although on reflection a person might say, “I don’t know how I knew, I just knew I needed to…,” later that person will remember the danger signals that their reasoning ignored, but their survival instinct didn’t.

On the other hand, de Becker, like our other fear-fighting experts, wants us to reduce our worries and anxiety, claiming that we can overload our minds with worrying about what might happen and miss immediate, imminent danger.

“We all know there are plenty of reasons to fear people from time to time. The question is, what are those times? Far too many people are walking around in a constant state of vigilance, their intuition misinformed about what really poses danger. It needn’t be so. When you honor accurate intuition signals and evaluate them without denial (believing both the favorable or the unfavorable outcomes are possible), you need not be wary, for you will come to trust that you’ll be notified if there is something worthy of your attention. Fear will gain credibility because it won’t be applied wastefully. When you accept the survival signal as a welcome message and quickly evaluate the environment or situation, fear stops in an instant. Thus, trusting intuition is the opposite of living in fear.”

Precautions are healthy, but remaining in a constant state of fright is destructive and can lead to panic, which destroys our ability to react with reason. If we spend our lives looking for the expected danger, we will miss the unexpected threat.

Again, differentiating true fear from worry is important. Worry or anxiety keep us from acting. True fear propels us into action. It energizes and drives us away from danger.

“Worry, wariness, anxiety and concern all have a purpose, but they are not fear. So any 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. It may well be something worth trying to understand and manage, but worry will not bring solutions. It will more likely distract you from finding solutions….. Worry is the fear we manufacture—it is not authentic. It is a choice…. When you feel fear, listen. When you don’t feel fear, don’t manufacture it. If you find yourself creating worry, explore and discover why.”

We might want to follow our line of worry to answer all our “what if’s” until we discover that our worry leads us to an imagined end that we really will survive and handle. “What if I fail this test? Then I’ll have to retake it. What if I fail the next one and the class? Then I can retake the class and study harder. What if I’m not smart enough to succeed in this line of study? Then I’ll change course. But I won’t die from failing this test. I will handle whatever comes.

Sometimes our intuition doesn’t scream, “Get out now!” Sometimes it comes as a suspicion, or a discomfort, or a sense that something isn’t right. Trust that sense and any such “gut feeling.” Don’t deny that danger might be present just because a stranger seems nice. Remind yourself he is still a stranger, no matter how he tries to win you with charm. Women especially are reminded to avoid the trap of not wanting to be rude. Not being nice, not giving a person who makes you uncomfortable any benefit of the doubt, is a survival skill. A truly good person will usually understand when you react with suspicion because he recognizes how you must protect yourself and not allow vulnerability. Even if he is insulted, isn’t that better than the opposite error of trusting someone you shouldn’t?

Honor that nudge of unease. Examine it. But when true fear demands action, don’t take time to think it through. If fear says, “Get out now!” then get out! You can later think about it and examine it all you want. True fear, remember, is either about what is imminently to happen, or it is about pain and death.

Our most famous quote about fear came from Franklin Roosevelt, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” De Becker would change that to, “There is nothing to fear unless and until you feel fear.”

De Becker recommends we not allow media to heap on us its daily doses of fright. I admire Mr. Rogers’ take on televised disasters. He reminds children to look for the helpers. Whenever people are in trouble other people come to help them. I’m reminded of the Boston marathon that ended because of two bomb explosions. Within seconds of the detonations, we saw people scrambling to help the fallen.

De Becker would say in times of danger, follow your intuition. Mr. Rogers would add, there will be helpers. And Susan Jeffers would conclude, “You can handle whatever comes.”


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