Is fear for real?
What Emotion(s) is authentic and undeniable? Do you control it, or does it control you?
Last week I joined a group on Meetup called “Intellectual Pursuit”. The group gathers twice a month to discuss several different topics that offer a cue for interesting debates. Hiroshima & Nagasaki, Anger Management, Generational Heritage, Amnesia after a crime, Corporations & Politics, just to name a few.
A particular topic that I would love to discuss with the group, and all of you here on Medium, is the topic of human emotions and their influence with critical-thinking. Which among all emotions that we are able to feel, do you believe is the most powerful, most undeniable, beautiful (or not), carrying by its strength? Are you able to modulate it, control it, or do you like to be completely absorbed and carried away by it?
I will be writing about FEAR.
I’ve decided to write about fear because I’ve had several experiences that made me meditate about the unquestionable presence of this emotion in human psychology. If fear was to be given a general interpretation of, what would people agree on? What is my interpretation? In what cases fear hides at a subconscious level, and in what cases it is real, almost tangible? In general, does fear interact/interfere with people’s life? If so, to what extent?
I make a premise here: I doubt I can give a definitive answer to these questions just yet. Perhaps I am too young, or simply I will never know, questions are subjective to personal interpretation after all, and answers vary from personal experience. But I will try to achieve a better understanding of the emotion by analyzing a few instances of fear…
Fear, an undeniable force or an elaborate mirage?
What are common things people are afraid of? Death, Social Rejection, Hunger, Pain, Illnesses, Grief, Loneliness? What are some common phobias? Arachnophobia (spiders), Acrophobia (heights), Pyrophobia (fire), etc? (Check this interesting list for more phobias: http://www.fearof.net/ )
Again, any of these will vary from individual to individual. A person can be just neutral to spiders, I would be terrified to meet the big Australian bird-eating-spider (don’t check Google), but my friend developed a phobia for them, and she will panic any time she sees even a tiny one.
Anyway, analyzing these few examples I am able to individuate two main flows of fear. I believe both are equally plausible, depending largely on the context, and on the subject of course. From one side, I would define fear as an undeniable emotion that lies within human psychology (similarly to pain for Buddhism). From the other side, I see fear as an illusion generated by impartial/wrong/lack of information in any given context.
Let’s analyze the first type: fear cannot be invoked, nor faked, nor taught. It might be dormant, waiting for you to deal with it when the time comes: like an illness or death. But it might also be an awake presence; that manipulates your decisions, your actions, distorts reality of senses, and misleads information: phobia. For example everybody knows we should not run for our lives if we would have the unpleasant experience of facing an angry bear in the wild; nonetheless our legs are probably going to decide for themselves.
The second type is less dramatic. By mentioning fear as a misinterpretation of reality due to lack of information, I meant that fear injects in our present a projection of an uncertain and uncontrollable future. And we don’t like to be unable to control our reality. Cypher Raige teaches Kitai, his son:
“Fear is not real. It is a product of thoughts you create. Do not misunderstand me. Danger is very real. But fear is a choice.” (Will Smith — After Earth — 2013 ).
In other words, Raige defines danger as an unquatifiable variable that is as ubiquitous as elusive, on which people don’t have control. Fear is the spontaneous reaction to that undefined danger. Every daily action requires a choice. Every choice implies danger, a rational individual simply chooses the option with less relative danger. That choice is fear driven, the person tends to avoid the most unpleasant outcome. People take the car to go work, because they fear to arrive late by using public transportation. People dress in a professional suit for a job interview, because they fear discrimination and rejection. People behave according to their social environment’s norms, because they fear judgement. People eat because they fear hunger — and all the relative consequences of hunger of course, and so fort.
Fear, does it prevent me from thinking critically, or does it enhance my rationality?
The two interpretations of fear leverage different psychological behavior. One produces a passive attitude of the individual toward the emotion (reactive behavior), the other one is more active as the individual is trying to mange it (proactive behavior). The former induces the individual into a powerless state managed only by the degree of strength of the emotion: an acrophobic person could lose his/her rationality if they had to climb a tall tower. The latter leads toward a critical and analytical mindset on the fly: “Should I try to attack the spider knowing it could jump on my face, or should I try to find another way to get it out of the house?”
Which one rules out the other, is subject of personal judgement. A combination of these possibilities seems to me a more realistic description, but I would not discard a mutual rejection either: a sensory perception is again something of individualistic interpretation, we seek to find a common understanding of. It is interesting to notice tough, that we develop the softer stage of fear after we have had several experiences dealing with the first type. I learned to put scorpions into a glass and eject them out of the door after several years spent on splatting them under my shoe (BTW scorpion are exoskeletons an trapping them might not be sufficient, they will actually become very angry about that). Not to mention that I couldn’t allow myself to kill a potentially useful animal just because I was afraid of it… (but maybe this is another story).
In general, I think that a person can have any type of cause-effect instances when dealing with emotions, including fear. People react or respond to emotions depending on the context and their past experiences with them. Fear is no exception: if it is at a conscious level, meaning you are aware you are being scared by something in that moment, you might be able to mitigate it and think critically before taking a decision, thus you respond to the situation. In some other cases, however, fear comes completely unexpected, and your body operates by instinct. Your friend decides to prank you by giving you a little scare. You will have a reaction to the emotion, which might not always bring you to the desired outcome.
Awareness and rational thought differentiate us from animals. But being animals ourselves we have emotions too. The fact that we learn how to deal with particular emotions does not deny the existence of the emotion itself.
Only because fear exists, we have something called courage.