Friday, October 24, 2008

Why Are We Afraid?

Fear is a natural and useful instinct that all humans share. It is meant to alarm us when there is danger. We are afraid of a stranger standing in front of us with a gun because well, they can shoot us. Sure we could probably go with out the emotion and rationally construe that the best course of action is to tread carefully. Actually fear may make things worse by inducing panic. Yet many if not most other emotions are like that. Anger being probably the best example, because it is basically always useless. However, most other emotions are triggered by a situation that understandably stimulates it. Anger comes when someone or something wrongs us in some way. Fear however, seems to manifest itself in completely meaningless situations. So what is it that we really fear?

There are a multitude of different phobias, few of which make rational sense. Why on Earth would a 150 pound human being be scarred of a non poisonous little Granddaddy Long Leg spider that weighs less than an ounce? Yet, other fears that almost everyone has are present, even if not to the extent of a phobia. For example, calling a girl (or boy) you like, cold calls, phone calls in general, knocking on someone’s door, speaking up in a meeting, etc.

In essence, those fears fall into one category, while the others, like the aforementioned arachnophobia, fall into a second. The second category is simply a fear of danger. That danger is often non-existent, like in the case with most spiders, or horror films or dark alleys, etc. Yet it makes sense that people may feel this way. Some spiders are poisonous, horror films represent very dangerous situations for characters the audience has grown to care about and bad things can happen in dark alleys although they rarely ever do. The second fear makes less sense however. That is the fear, I believe, of being judged negatively.

This fear includes taking risks, initiating conversation with a stranger, potential client or someone you are attracted to, starting a business, etc. Some might argue that a third category should be added, that of failing, but I disagree. I think it’s the same basic fear. The fear of taking risks would seem to amount to a fear of failing, but is it failing or is it being judged for your failure? I believe it is the ladder. If something is appealing to someone, they will take the steps to get there, even if it sets them back financially or in some other area of life. Think about it this way, why would the average American be more willing to spend 101% of their income on mindless consumerism than launch a new venture? Laziness perhaps, or maybe some fear becoming financially ruined, but most don’t want people to see them aim for a goal and then fail. They don’t want to be judged.

Our culture today revolves around what you appear to be. Abercrombie and Fitch, the Gap, Banana Republic all celebrate this image driven culture along with plastic surgery, breast enhancements, most rappers, movie stars, most advertising, credit cards, etc. The problem is however, that appearance has nothing to do with yourself and only how others perceive you. People are basing their behavior, persona and just about everything they are on what others want them to be. Thus it makes perfect sense when Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Effective People, did a study on new age vrs older self help literature and found that books written in the past 50 years focused on one’s exterior persona while those written before are based on an introspective approach to self improvement. This cultural paradigm shift has come with quite unfortunate consequences.

Now this isn’t all to say I’m against capitalism (I’m not) or believe the good old days were so much better than now (they weren’t). But we as a society have appeared to lose some valuable insights. For instance, trying to please everyone will please no one, especially not yourself. It just makes you a yes man, fad riding, amalgamation of 50 different pop icons with no real discernable personality. Furthermore, it makes one fear others internal judgment constantly. Thus it cripples any attempt to reach out to others, take risks or pursue “strange” opportunities or dreams for fear of this judgment. What’s ironic is that people who speak their mind, take risks and have a sense of humor about failing are respected more by their peers than those who don’t. They just come across, well, they come across as real.

I for one believe that we’ve made great improvements in society overall. I wouldn’t go back to segregated, intolerant Cold War era of the 1950’s and earlier into the World Wars, colonialism, monarchies, de facto feudalism. Yet this change, or perhaps trend, has significantly damaged us by making us fear the irrational. Surely these fears existed before, but our culture exacerbates them and with out understanding where this fear comes from and how irrational it is, it is sure to cripple us in whatever we do.

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