What scares you? Not in the big, metaphorical sense but in an immediate, palm-sweating, heart racing kind of way. Spiders? Heights? Water?
In Frank Herbert’s classic novel, Dune, fear is described as “the mind killer”. There is some truth in that description but I feel as if there is a piece missing.
Fear has been on my mind lately. Last week I had a molar removed. The tooth had endured two separate roots canals but the vertical fracture remained and now an infection was eating away the jaw bone above the tooth. When the endodontist gave me the news, my stomach dropped. This was no simple extraction. There was a good amount of bone loss and the offending tooth was right up against my sinuses. An oral surgeon would have to remove the tooth and put in some “new” bone. I would likely require IV sedation.
That last part is where the fear came in. I am getting braver with dental injections but I hate and fear having IV lines put in.
Fear is a strange emotion. It serves a practical purpose. Our ancient ancestors who feared snakes, for example, probably stood a better chance of not getting bitten by the venomous ones, and dying, than their fearless counterparts. In such a case, fear saves lives and enables future generations of snake-fearing humans to exist. But what happens when we learn to identify snakes and evolve past the need for blind fear?
Can we evolve past deeply rooted fear?
I love sharks. Apex predators are a necessary part of any ecosystem; sharks keep our oceans healthy and balanced. I know the statistics. I know the facts. When I dive, snorkel or swim in open water I am not afraid of shark attacks. That’s silly. There are thousands of dangers that are infinitely more likely to injure or kill me in the ocean than sharks.
So explain to me why, when a twelve-foot bronze whaler shark swam beneath me while Prez and I were out diving in the Cook Islands, my brain was seized by blood-chilling fear. The shark was not being aggressive. If anything, it was curious—slowly circling about ten feet below us as we surfaced from our dive. In a finger snap, my logic and knowledge vaporized. I was terrified. Even after I was safely back on our boat, watching the lazy leviathan from above, my heart refused to stop pounding.
This is the frustrating part of fear. Everything your brain knows is true, all the evidence that proves you are safe, can be wiped away as easily as erasing words from a whiteboard.
But there are many types and degrees of fear. One of the most common comments I received while working as a stunt performer was, “You must be fearless.” Not true. I often experienced fear before a stunt but it was a good, useful fear. This type of fear, harnessed, sharpens your senses, tightens your reflexes, and boosts your energy. This is adrenaline fear and it is nature’s performance enhancing drug. This is not fear to be conquered; this is fear to be channeled.
The fear I experienced looking at a shark circling beneath me and the fear I experienced before deliberately diving out of the way of a speeding car exist on opposite ends of the fear spectrum. Somewhere between those two extremes lies my fear of needles and flying. These varieties of fear serve no function except to debilitate, embarrass and annoy me.
The question I’ve wrestled with over the years is: How do I beat this kind fear?
In our culture, fear is viewed as a weakness. We soak our fear in shame. We call people wussy, chicken, yellow, coward, wimp, baby, weakling. We want people to “get over it” to “nut up or shut up”. I am as guilty as anyone else when it comes to this.
I used to love flying and would mercilessly tease friends who bit their nails on rocky flights. Then, in 1993, on a Korean Air flight from Tokyo to Los Angeles, as our 747 fell and passengers screamed and overhead bins flew open and I thought ‘So this is how I die’, everything changed.
My fear of flying was born in that single traumatic event and no amount of nutting up and shutting up made my palms any less sweaty or my heart rate any less frantic. It wasn’t until I broke down and asked for help that I experienced any relief. I waited more than ten years before I finally asked my doctor if there was anything he could give me to help with air travel. Before I asked, however, I prepared a long and detailed explanation so the doctor wouldn’t think I was being wimpy.
The explanation was unnecessary. All my doctor wanted to know was why I’d waited so long to ask for help. A few tiny pills, that’s all it took for me to head skyward again without panicking.
I’m learning to abandon the shame of fear. I’m learning to ask for help. When I get my blood taken now, I ask for “the chicken room”—a room with a bed, so I can lie down. As long as I’m horizontal and I don’t look at the blood-taking apparatus, I’m fine. I learned that trick after I came out and told a friend of mine—a friend who works in a hospital lab—about my fear. “Oh yeah, just ask to lie down. You’ll be amazed,” she said.
I did. I was.
When I called the oral surgeon’s office a few weeks ago to set up my appointment, I decided to swallow my pride and tell them about my IV fear. “Oh, that’s fine,” the receptionist said. “Just ask for some freezing cream when you get to the office. You rub it on your hand, let it sit for thirty minutes, and then you won’t feel a thing.” I also asked if I could take one or two of my “chill pills” to take the edge off before the surgery. The reply? “Absolutely.”
Because of all this soul-baring, I had a pleasant and painless experience. The tooth is gone. The bone is healing. I’m compensating for dietary restrictions by allowing myself extra ice-cream rations. All is good.
Fear is the mind killer when we fail to acknowledge it or when we allow it more power over us than it deserves. The problem with ignoring fear is that fear will always find a way to manifest itself, sometimes as hate—misdirected hate. When that happens, it is more than our mind that suffers.
There’s a lot of fear going around right now. Terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut and threats elsewhere have rocked us yet again. The terrorists can pat themselves on the back for a job well done; we are afraid and a lot of innocent people are caught in the middle.
In a state of fear, logic, facts and statistics are wiped away. Every refugee becomes a potential terrorist, no matter what the facts say. The shark is no longer a vital part of the ecosystem circling you out of curiosity, it is a killer waiting to clamp you in its razor jaws and drag you to the depths. It is natural to fear the shark. What we do with that fear is what matters. Do we declare open season on sharks? Do we revel in their destruction? Do we shut the doors on all the refugees? Do we attack Muslims and burn mosques?
Fear is the heart killer.
Sharks scare me but I will not let that stop me from speaking up for their well being and demanding their protection. Flying scares me but I will not let that keep me from traveling on airplanes. Needles scare me but I will not let that stop me from taking care of my health. Bombs scare me but I will not let that stop me from caring for my fellow humans and extending a hand of kindness where and when it is needed.
I will not let fear destroy either my logic or my empathy. Will you?
“I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” ~ Frank Herbert, Dune