By Basil E. Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
Fear is a primitive emotion with share with other mammals and at least some reptiles or their descendants the birds. The locus of fear is in the amygdala of the brain, in a specific cluster of neurons which we can stimulate with a electrical current causing this particular feeling in a test animal. I did this experiment many years ago at the California Institute of Technology in a psychobiology class conducted by Richard Sperry using cats. The cat faced with a mouse will raise its hair with fear and scream when so stimulated. Does a rational animal, such as you or I, need fear to survive and prosper? No, we’re better off without any fear of anything, doing things we need to do with clear thinking and perfect control to protect ourselves and those we love.
Can I achieve such self control over fear under all circumstances? Probably not, but I should try. You may want to follow me in this argument.
Fear can be a hydra, with many poisonous heads. We may suffer from fear of heights, including flying in aircraft, known as acrophobia; or fear of public places—agoraphobia; fear of spiders—arachnophobia; also, xenophobia, homophobia, hydrophobia; aichmophobia (my brother and one of my daughters have this fear of sharp knives and needles); thalassophobia (some people are so afraid of water they never learn to swim, risking drowning); fear of illness (hypochondria), accident, shame, dishonor, failure, poverty, aging, and death (thanatophobia)—the heads of the hydra are many. You cut one head and feel safe for a while, then the hydra of fear sprouts another head. Like Heracles, you need to cut and burn each noxious head so that it will not regenerate.
Wait a minute, even if we can slay the hydra of fear, should we do so? Is that slaying like taking a pain killer only to cause deeper injury to our body? No.
Rabbits need fear and mice too. Rational humans should rise above fear and use their wits to avoid injury. Fear causes us to run and hide when that course may not be the best way to safety. Often confronting your fear and conquering it along with the cause of it is the rational thing to do.
Occasionally, a prey, cornered by a predator, a rabbit unable to escape the wolf or dog will turn around from its run and stand its ground in front of the killer. The outcome is usually predictable: the wolf or dog gets its next meal. But occasionally the wolf is startled long enough at this unexpected turn of events to allow the prey to escape.
In the novel “Watership Downs” by Nick Adams, dogs raid the rabbit warren ruled by a big male dictator “The Colonel.” He yells at his followers, “Don’t be afraid of them; they’re only dogs!” The Colonel gets munched.
In his first inaugural speech at the height of the Great Depression, on March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “…the only thing we have to fear is… fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror…” A memorable rhetorical sentence, but nonsense. To have no fear means no fear can be. If we are to ban fear, we should ban all fear, leave not a single head of it to rise against us, or the hydra will continue to torture and confound us.
Still, don’t we perform better when we feel the appropriate emotion? Are not hormones and other substances released in our blood stream which allow us to run faster to escape, hide more carefully from the enemy? Not so today. Life is too complex to be left to raw emotions. We’ll not use our technology or tools effectively while we’re in the grip of fear.
I handle the wheel and breaks of my car better in an emergency if I keep cool rather than if I panic. Once on the freeway the car just in front of me overturned and blocked my way. I looked left and right quickly and steered left to an open lane completely without fear. I impressed myself. If I have to make a speech, will I do better scared of the audience or calm and at ease in front of them? When I first tried public speaking I froze and mumbled in front of all the staring eyes. As a professor I learned to ban my fear, telling myself I was there to teach and those were the faces of my children. If I’m selling, don’t I sell more stuff when I’m friendly and relaxed with the prospect? If I’m a surgeon, do I cut more carefully when I’m confident or when I’m nervous?
In primitive times raw emotions such as fear or anger took care of the situation pretty well. In modern society with all its complexities and possible outcomes, we behave better when using our intellect to solve problems with just the calm feeling of concern. Be concerned, don’t be afraid, I tell myself when faced with risk and danger.
Risk and danger often cause not fear but an undercurrent of anxiety and depression. Anxiety can become chronic, because its cause is not an immediate threat but the possibility of a threat to our well being or the well being of our loved ones.
Most parents are anxious and worried more about their children than about themselves. We also worry about our spouses, their health and their difficulties and about sisters and brothers. Recently I have been concerned and sometimes worried about my 85 year old brother who’s been ailing. I’m not much younger than he is and have my own health problems, but I have been upset more about his condition than mine.
I keep telling myself not to worry, but simply remain concerned and caring, doing what I can to help him without agonizing.
I realize that giving myself admonitions is not always enough to quiet my mind about the problems I’m facing. If I’m fearful and having difficulty sleeping from persistent anxiety, do I visit my doctor and ask for tranquilizers or sleeping pills, or is there some other way to calm myself? Yes, I’ll come to this question shortly.
First, let’s consider situations where fear is appropriate. Certainly a child or an adult lacking a sufficient store of knowledge of the world and of reason should experience fear to survive. Survival is the key criterion. Fearlessness should be there in proportion to your level of experience and reason. Similarly would you want a child to feel pain when touching a stove? Of course. Those feeling no pain inevitably expose themselves to much damage. Yet, many people keep taking pain killers just to feel better, although the lack of pain causes them to suffer more injury to their joints or other parts. My brother-in-law George kept taking pain medicine for his stomach until he eventually suffered a bleeding ulcer. We’re all irrational in some ways and when so afflicted we need some rational fear.
Being fearless and cool-headed, however, has been my ideal. As a young boy I was big, sturdy, and virtually fearless, receiving the admiration of parents and relatives together with their concern for my safety. One afternoon when I was five I got hungry and I knew we had meat and potatoes in the neighborhood bakery oven. I went to the bakery and fetched home a tray of food almost as big as I was. Sometime later, however, I thoroughly panicked when a barn near our house caught fire that rose to the sky. “Let’s get away from here,” I cried. To me the fire held a mystical terror, but my family has kidded me about my panic every since.
As a boy I admired the British officers in World War II when they were billeted at our house in Greece, how they looked up at the sky full of German aircraft, but with calm cultured voices went about their duties. Did they experience fear and still carried on or had they extinguished that emotion? Later in life I had a lot of respect for my brother-in-law’s handling of emergencies with total self control, such as when he wrapped up by dad’s wrists in a 1974 suicide attempt from depression and rushed him to the hospital. I decided to be like George and was rewarded with his praise when I handled family emergencies well.
Whether we want to allow fear in our hearts or not, certainly panic or terror is undesirable because it usually deprives people of the ability to reason, although it may add much energy to the course of flight. A stampeding herd is more likely to be victimized by predators. The young and weak are separated from the herd and become easy targets. A crowded theater or ship on fire is often the scene of panic, everybody jamming the exits at once, causing unnecessary deaths and injuries. Officials announce, “Please be calm, order, order!” Such pronouncements usually have little effect on the crowd.
Instilling fear and panic in enemy ranks or any opposing group is, of course, a common practice in war and other competitions. In WWII the Nazi war machine used such tactics against Polish civilians and other nations. Nazi bombs were designed to whistle loudly as they fell. I remember the bombs well; I used to have nightmares about them for many years after the war.
The Nazis bombed London and other British cities in WWII to break the will of the civilians supporting the war effort. Later the Allies used similar tactics against the German population, eventually destroying all major cities. In 1941 Greek troops attacked the Italian invaders from Albania with cries of “Aéra, Aéra!” The yelling gave courage to the Greeks and inspired fear in the Italians who retreated although superior in numbers and weapons.
In recent times al-Qaida and ISIS have attacked soldiers and civilians with suicide bombers and other means to terrorize and demoralize people who oppose their extreme religious convictions. No sane government can acquiesce to such tactics, but will fight back with renewed vigor whatever the cost. With fear or without it the people attacked will continue to fight criminal extremism as they have no other reasonable choice.
Even in business some operators use intimidation to impress and vanquish competition. Robert J. Ringer wrote a best selling book, “Winning Through Intimidation,” a sales manual and memoir of his successes in business. Banks and other financial institutions often inhabit imposing, intimidating, and awe-inspiring structures with columns and magnificent facades. In old days kings and queens had gigantic doors and pillars leading to their audition chambers with sky-high ceilings. The king or queen sat on the throne above others, surrounded by advisers and dignitaries of his court, dressed in royal purple and festooned with precious jewels. The show was obviously intended to impress and to inspire fear.
Intimidation is an art form practiced by the Russian state of Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin. The Kremlin often issues threats of destruction against Europe and the United States with atomic and conventional weapons to make these countries wary and cautious. Threats are often the recourse of tyrants. Putin’s bluffs are actually an expression of weakness on the part of Russia, a third-rate economic and military power, in spite of being one of the great nations on Earth in cultural contributions to mankind. Should we be afraid of the Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans, or the Iranians? We don’t need fear to counter any hostile acts from them. We need good strategies and tactics. We need courage.
Does courage imply the absence of fear or does courage mean the ability to do what’s right, fight if necessary, for survival in spite of fear? Heroes usually say, “I was scared but I knew we had to take that pillbox for the army to move ahead.” I wonder. In the heat of battle fear tends to be replaced with anger and hatred; fear disappears. Our amygdala can generate only one strong emotion at a time.
It matters little whether you can act bravely because you have no fear or because you act so with fear. According to Ernest Hemingway’s 1936 story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” Macomber in an African safari shows himself to be a coward because he runs instead of firing his gun at a wounded charging lion. The professional hunter guide Robert Wilson saves him, shooting the lion down. Macomber is disgraced and his wife sleeps with Wilson. Later in the face of charging wild buffalo Macomber stands his ground and after Wilson misses, Macomber shoots the buffalo dead. He’s now a true man, but his wife promptly shoots him dead accidentally or on purpose. Moral of story: afraid or not, don’t marry a bitch.
And I’m ready now to tackle a question I posed previously. If I decide to vanquish fear, to banish it from my heart, how do I go about doing that? Clearly, I can do it by making myself angry, by feeling hatred at the instigator of my fear. Such a course tends to lead to aggressive behavior towards the perceived enemy, conflict and reprisals from the other party. Such a course is not acceptable to me. The Buddhists and true Christians love all men, even dangerous animals. A Buddhist monk confronting a poisonous snake is likely to address it with love. The expression of love may defuse a conflict, even with a snake or scorpion, let alone another human being. Love can conquer all, even the dark of night.
Children and some adults are usually afraid of the dark, for good reasons. Danger can lurk at night ready to strike a vulnerable person. I love the night; it holds no threats for me because I know how to handle the dark.
So to subdue what frightens me, to slay the many-headed hydra of fear, I try understanding and love. If that doesn’t work, I will use “thymos,” a kind of calm, cold, deliberate, and calculating anger against the source of my anxiety. Yes, sometimes I’ll accept the sense of awareness of danger coming from people or situations, hostile vibrations if you like, while investigating the reason for my subconscious perturbation. After I have the facts for my disquiet, if any are available, I proceed to take fitting action to counter the threat, without losing any sleep over it. At least this is what I try to do.
Just as you do, I too face dangers that concern me, such as illness, accidents, aging, and death. The probability is high that I’m closer to these threats than you are, dear reader. Catholics often carry a St. Christopher’s medallion to ward off evil accidents. A shaman may hold a medicine bag with sacred objects: feathers, stones, relics. The priest in some churches sprinkles people with holy water. He exorcises evil possession with incantations and the crucifix. I counter the ultimate evils of aging and death with the hope of joining the Cosmic Self, whatever may happen to my mortal remains. I may be wrong to hold such a hope if it is mistaken, but hope takes care of my immediate problem, which is that of the hydra of fear, by replacing it with acceptance and peace of mind. Shalom.