We Have Everything to Fear, Except Fear Itself

Posted on June 30, 2011

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There’s a strange noise coming from somewhere. A scratching sound, muffled yet close by. It’s unsettling. We go looking for it, standing motionless in the middle of the living room, our heads tilted to one side. We listen. There it is again. It’s coming from inside that wall. There’s something alive in there!

Even a tiny mouse, a creature any adult could flick across the yard with two fingers, an animal we see as cute or helpless when in a cage, becomes an alarming beast when out of sight and free to roam.

Every one of us is wired for fear. And that’s good, because let’s face it, there are things out there much more dangerous than a mouse. Things that can chew us up or make us bleed or cause our hair to catch on fire. Grizzly bears, for example. And shaving razors that don’t have four titanium blades topped with a pro-glide aloe comfort strip. And getting struck by lightning.

Sometimes modern life makes things too safe, and then we go looking for fear, just to stay in practice. We pay people to strap us into high-speed roller-coasters that give us the sensation of plummeting to our death. We plunk down hard-earned money to sit in dark movie theaters and watch actors pretending to get stabbed, impaled, blown up, or cut into pieces. We clip ourselves to big rubber bands, then leap from bridges while our friends and loved ones cheer us on and snap pictures to put on Facebook. We dress up like giant squid, then swim with sharks and barracuda and other deep sea animals that eat giant squid. We hang from sheer rock cliff faces, perform acrobatics on motorcycles, and wrestle with animals that see wrestling as the first step in food preparation. We do these things because nothing makes us feel more alive than almost getting killed.For some of us, paralyzing fear isn’t a source of thrills, but a constant companion. We don’t need extreme situations to spark a panic attack. There are hundreds of everyday phobias, including the fear of enclosed spaces, the fear of escalators, and the fear of dust. Some people are terrified by chopsticks, or chickens, or children. I suffer from an affliction for which there is no known remedy: I’m petrified of support groups, self-help books, and advice columnists.

And then, there are the big ones, the fears Freud wrote about. (I’m not sure if Freud really wrote about them. I’m afraid of Freud, even pictures of him. He always looked as though someone had just asked to borrow his favorite undershirt.) These fears, or at least the tendency to have them, is part of our genetic coding. Centuries ago, they included comets, eclipses, and shooting stars — real events with imagined consequences. But they also included invisible threats, such as demons, gods, and evil spirits. To ward off the effects of these unseen menaces, we invented a variety of remedies: good luck charms, incantations, and the occasional burning alive of farm animals and young women. But no matter how hard we worked at feeling safe and secure, there was always something out there, something with bad intentions, something that was coming for us. Dragons. Ghosts. The plague. The Anti-Christ.

As science began to make progress in explaining some of these sources of terror, the perceived threats changed. Vampires began to appear, first in Eastern Europe and then in North American bookstores. Unimaginable creatures started showing up, creatures that left cows drained of body fluids, or carried off unwary children. Witches were tried, tortured, and killed for allegedly performing the Devil’s work. In the twentieth century, new threats arrived in the form of alien spaceships, traveling unimaginable distances to snatch us from our beds, probe us with blunt instruments, and get themselves elected to state legislatures. Terrorists discovered innovative ways to kill hundreds of people in a matter of seconds. Nuclear weapons made it possible to annihilate almost everyone, and leave a few survivors wishing they were dead.

The list gets longer every year. Food additives. Mold. Anthrax. Global warming. Ozone depletion. Secret meetings of the rich and powerful. All designed to inject terror into the heart and helplessness into the mind.

The truth is, we need something to fear, on both small and large scales. The small fears — the phobias and superstitions — separate us as individuals and cultures. The larger, more universal fears — attacks by monsters or aliens — tend to create a common bond.

But there’s another menace, one that is experienced on an individual, often invisible basis. Yet, it’s as real as any of the others: the online stalker. Demons took our souls. Vampires drank our blood. Witches snatched our babies. Aliens attacked our planet. And now the stalker can steal our lifestyles, our identities, and our peace of mind.

Over the past few months, a close friend has been hounded by someone commenting on her blog. The messages are biting, condescending, and hostile. They spit and snarl and sneer that my friend lacks courage, and that her cowardice is shared by her fellow bloggers. Somehow, in this one person’s mind, writing publicly about thoughts and feelings demonstrates faintheartedness, while sending anonymous comments with fake IP and email addresses exhibits bravery.

The threats contained in these messages, if real, are cloaked in enough ambiguity to leave room for doubt: does the sender intend to do harm, or cause just a little mischief? There’s no way to know. And it’s the not knowing that causes the anxiety. Even a mouse hiding inside a wall knows that. The irony, though, is that often the mouse is frightened, too. In the process of revealing our fears, we can scare others. Some people are unaware they’re having this effect, but many do it intentionally, with malice and enthusiasm. Which is a senseless waste of time, because we all have more than enough to be scared about.

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I’m almost sure the stalker will be reading this post, and quite possibly yours, as well. I’m absolutely sure my friend will be reading it. If you’d like to leave a comment, please offer whatever advice you have for either one of them. Both, in different ways and for different reasons, could use a little help.

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Posted in: Friends