By Will Baker

I had an interesting chat last evening with a good friend of mine. We were discussing the role that fear plays in our lives. We reached the conclusion that fear might be the root cause of many of the social ills that we see played-out all about us. It seems to me that fear is a powerful motivator of behavior, and unfortunately, in many instances our fear can manifest itself in self-destructive ways.

For example, many of us fear folks that are "different" than us. I believe that we sometimes view these people as threats to the norm. And a corollary to this is fear of change. It is quite possible therefore, that this might be the reason why so very many of us demonstrate intolerant behavior from time to time. And then there are the more personal types of fear, such as fear of failure. Folks that find themselves in this situation might drive themselves too hard in their quest for success, and in the process experience feelings of alienation and disillusionment. But I suppose that our fears might also serve a useful purpose. I can imagine instances where certain fears might be considered quite normal, such as the "fear" associated with the "fight or flight" response. Yes, it seems to me that to an extent, we might all be hard-wired to experience this type of productive fear.

But what about that amorphous type of personal fear that sometimes strikes? We have all experienced it from time to time. Yet for some of us, this unsettled feeling sometimes turns into a general sense of dread. One acquaintance comes to mind that sometimes feels so captured by this feeling that he is left almost paralyzed by it, making it impossible for him to function and greatly diminishing the quality of his life. This is a very personal type of fear, one that impacts most every facet of his existence. And fear can motivate us to make poor personal choices. For example, I do not have much difficulty imagining a situation where one could lie out of fear. Knowing full well that the lie, if discovered, could do great damage. Yet the lie is told anyway, and then it hangs there, in the background of the relationship, waiting to be discovered.

And then there are those fears that we as a society collectively express, and which might be responsible for many of the unfortunate choices that we as a people make, like when violence is prompted by fear. We do treat each other quite poorly sometimes, and I believe that fear is a major reason for this--whether it is fear of general societal change or fear that national resources might be threatened or national identities may be lost. Or perhaps, in this context, most harmful of all is the fear of what our perceived adversary’s intentions might be. We do know what we ourselves are capable of, and some of it isn’t too pretty, so we project this capability onto other folks, and then fear them for it.

But whether it is expressed publicly or privately, it seems to me that we oftentimes loathe ourselves for our fears. Many examples come to mind of groups of people that carry guilt over the deeds of their predecessors, whose dastardly actions were no doubt motivated out of fear. To this day Germany harbors guilt over the Holocaust, and in our country we have a chip on our shoulder regarding our past treatment of black folks, as does South Africa. Our fear motivates our actions (or our inaction) and then we feel guilt. It is a vicious cycle. And we need only look to ourselves for similar examples that relate to the micro-level of our existences. We all feel guilt, remorse or anxiety over actions that we have taken or have failed to take.

So what can be done about it? Well, it seems to me that most fears must be done away with. For all but the arguably, "hard-wired" variety serve no useful purpose. So why then is fear present in so many of us? Well I believe that this situation is part of the Human Condition. We possess these wonderful minds, but they are double-edged swords. These intellects can create realities. They can dream. They can express themselves in beautiful manners. Yet they can also destroy and lay waste. And then turn around and give birth to a new day. And the cognitive and analytical skills necessary to perform these functions also give us the ability to over-analyze things, to continuously process information, solving-for perceived problems. But based upon my observations of folks, whom I would describe as being truly "centered," it does appear that if one is simply able to put that fear-monkey on a chain, the negative aspects of fear can be ameliorated. But again, as with many other things, this is easier said than done. Wouldn't you agree?



 (Essay Collection)