“Don’t worry…” “It’s probably nothing…” “I’m probably just being daft but…” How often do we hear words like these, keeping a bright smile firmly glued to immobile faces as fear strides in and starts clawing at our entrails? We recognise fear at those moments, we know its name. It is uncompromising, blatant, uncaring of our fragile mask of polite pretence. We want to act, do something… yet nine times out of ten we are shackled by circumstance, powerless to do anything at all except sit and wait, hoping, praying that the fear is groundless.
There are the fears we call worry that stalk us, like feline predators, silent and sure footed, circling ever closer while we are frozen, eyes locked on those of the beast, waiting for attrition to render us helpless, prey to our own imaginings and anticipation.
Sometimes it feels like we are being slowly gnawed, nibbled away from the ground up while we are chained in a dungeon of other fears… all our attention on the teeth that bite, not seeing that the chains we believe hold us are illusions, wisps of smoke born of unnamed terrors we refuse to look at.
Fear, in all its guises, is a dreadful thing to feel.
Of course, it has its uses. Fear was a very early part of our evolution and served to keep us alive in a hostile world. It still does… though we may not be running from a sabre-toothed tiger, we are beset by physical dangers we barely even notice, being so conditioned to care by our fears at an early age. We don’t consciously fear crossing a quiet, village road… but we still check for the truck that could squash us.
We are very conscious of the ‘big’ fears… and are acutely aware of those which are ‘lesser’, though they may not feel that way when they have you in their grip. They do not have to be reasonable to be painful and punishing. Anyone who saw Jaws when it first came out will probably have thought twice about sea bathing regardless of the fact that the chances of being a victim of a shark attack are one in 11.5 million, whereas one in ten thousand will die of flu, which we regard as a misery rather than a danger.
Fear can be useful in keeping us alive. It is, after all, what evolution designed it to do…protect us from danger. With our complicated lives, however, those primal fears have mutated and gone underground, taking us by stealth like an assassin in the darkness of our minds and emotions; silent, deadly and with little warning or chance of escape. We are conditioned by our own inner ninja.
These fears are more insidious, very difficult to pin down and understand; elusive shape-shifters that are so good at changing their outward appearance that they can be as difficult to see as the wind… we see them only by their effects, when they ruffle our branches or slam our doors. They clothe themselves in other guises, pretending to be things they are not… a fear of flying that is more likely the fear of crashing, a fear of dentists that may be the dread of pain, helpless at the hands of another… and they are just the simple ones.
What of the fear of death? Do we fear death itself… or what might come after? Is it the fear of hellfire, or the loss of our own identity… the ‘who will I be if I am not I’? The fear of commitment that may be the fear of losing control… or of being left alone again. The loss of status, things acquired that show who and what we are… yet mask the true fear that we are not. The layers of fear are so intertwined with our individual experience that they may be impossible for another to unravel completely, triggered as they are by unique combinations of events and experiences. Rather like making a cake. The same basic ingredients, varied infinitely by proportion, skill and the inclusion of flavourings.
It is said there are only five basic fears: extinction, loss of autonomy, separation, mutilation and ego-death… and that all can be attributed to one or the other, or a combination of these. When you think about it, in spite of our seeming multitude of fears, they all fit within these frames. The thing is, we seldom do really think about our fears, we react to them, allowing them to lead us blindly, often preferring to accept the apparent fear than to look beyond to the true root cause. In their purely physical terms they are easily understood, justifiable in the evolutionary attempt to secure survival. Yet they are far more insidious at the emotional levels.
Extinction… worse than just dying; ceasing to be. It is, from the level of our consciousness, unthinkable. Autonomy… powerlessness… to be restricted, subject to the will of a force beyond our control. Separation… utter aloneness, abandonment, exclusion… no longer a person. Mutilation… the loss of self-image through physical, emotional or social damage. Ego death… shame, dissolution of the image we build for and of ourselves… leaving us unfit, unworthy, unloved. These fears, unrecognised, unseen, affect almost every corner of our lives, shaping our actions and interactions.
When you look at them from this angle, all the emotional fears lead back to one thing… the way we see ourselves. Yet, just as the fear that makes us run from a predator can save our lives, or pain alert us to a potential problem that needs to be addressed, so can these quiet, insidious fears be used to show a way forward. Our fears may stop us falling off a cliff top, but they may also hold us back when adventure beckons. Every good sword has two edges.
Our fears give us something to learn from. They are signposts that we can read, following their trail and finding their lair. As with many things the fear itself may be far more intimidating than the cause, bigger in appearance than in actuality. A mouse wearing giant boots and leaving a false trail. Finding the mouse can be the beginning of an adventure, a voyage of discovery. Unravelling the tangled web we may face our fears, one by one, measuring ourselves against mouse or monster, and finally learning to see who we really are… and who we might become.