Who Scares?

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   March 1, 2018

Despite FDR’s famous dictum, that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” we do have plenty of other things to be afraid of. But what matters is how we deal with them. The ones really worth fearing are those we can’t prevent and can’t adequately insure against. 

Crossing a street is a chance we all take, at least occasionally. On any particular occasion, the chances are good you’ll make it safely across. Perhaps in your whole life, just one time you won’t. I lived 77 years before that happened to me and can only hope that it improves my odds against it ever happening again.

Some people are labeled “accident-prone.” Maybe they simply have bad luck. After all, regardless of the activity, the laws of probability bunch most of us in the middle – but there are always some at the edges, who will have more accidents, or more good luck, than the rest of us. (It’s that old “Bell-shaped curve” again.)

There are some people, called actuaries, who spend their whole professional lives calculating risks. I’ve often wondered how the nature of their work affects their personal lives. Do actuaries go in for hazardous sports such as mountaineering? What insurance do they buy? Does Las Vegas-type gambling appeal to them?

As for the rest of us, where does fear come in? Over the long haul, it has unquestionably helped us to survive. What matters is to be afraid of the right things, at the right time, in the right way, and not to waste your emotional energy being afraid of things that aren’t really dangerous. In its worst forms, this can amount to a mental illness, which the shrinks call a phobia. 

You’d be amazed at how many different phobias there are, and how strange, not to say crazy, some of them sound. Of course, there are the well-known ones, such as fear of heights, or of dogs, or of germs. But Roget’s Thesaurus lists hundreds of them, including fear of skin (dermatophobia), fear of leaves (phyllophobia), and fear of ideas (ideophobia). Some of the phobias listed must be quite rare, but presumably each of them must have been suffered by somebody somewhere, in order for their affliction to get into the reference books.

But the point is that these are all irrational fears, and no normal, healthy person should be troubled by them. However, the distinctions are not cut and dried. An otherwise normal person may be terrified when confronting a spider or some other kind of insect. (Fortunately, when I’ve been present on such occasions, I have been able to play the brave hero and come to the rescue.) And the fear some people (stereotypically women) might display in the presence of a relatively harmless little mouse has long been considered a supposedly comic phenomenon, with the victim standing on a chair and crying “EEK!”

So, what (you may ask) am I personally afraid of? I would put loss at the top of my list – particularly losing friends and other people close to me, and losing my own remaining physical and mental abilities. I’m not afraid of death per se (though I couldn’t always have said that – for many years I was beset by occasional fits of terror at the thought of ceasing to exist). But I am still afraid of the dreary process of continued aging and dying. 

Otherwise, my fears are relatively minor, possibly the biggest one being of catching somebody’s cold or flu or any other communicable disease – so I quickly withdraw myself from any such chance of contact. I’ll also admit to being fearful of firearms and don’t even like being near one.

I’m glad there are things that many other people seem to be afraid of, which don’t frighten me – such as thunder and lightning, or flying, or even riding a bicycle. I’m not afraid of embarrassment –no longer having much to be embarrassed about. I’m also not afraid of loss of privacy, which seems to be a big issue to many people nowadays. As for such major matters as global warming, nuclear war, or the threat of terrorism, I’m naturally sorry such issues even exist, but being more or less powerless to do anything about them, I don’t lose any sleep over them.

And finally, let me thank you for releasing me from what has been one of my greatest current fears – that you and I would never get to the end of this article.  


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