Fear is an odd thing. And not an enjoyable thing.
It can be useful. It can have an important function in keeping us cautious about things that might hurt us. That’s why we have fear: it’s evolution’s safeguard, to prevent us doing reckless things. An animal that fears is more likely to survive, because it won’t take as many unnecessary risks.
Some people embrace fear. They make it a point to provoke it in themselves, to feel it and to overcome it. So they’ll engage in risky activities: they’ll climb mountains; they’ll BASE jump; they’ll sail alone around the world. This enables them to feel the fear and know they’ve managed it. It puts them in control of themselves in a way that other animals can’t be.
So fear is useful, and it’s controllable. Feel it, examine it, put it aside, get on with things.
This is the rational part of me that’s describing fear. The part of me that can be dispassionate; that can stand back and see how this works.
Why, then – if I know and understand how these things work – can’t I control my fears?
My fears are irrational. This is the problem. My fears – the ones that dog me all day and every day, and that wake me up at night, as they did last night – aren’t about mitigating my risky behaviour; they aren’t a warning system. The system has malfunctioned. My fears aren’t about helping me to make sensible decisions. They’re fears for and about other people, and they tend to be more – to use a rather pretentious term – existential. The fears that trouble me, all the time, are apocalyptic.
When I was a child, I remember becoming aware of the Cold War. I learned about nuclear weapons, and that the two world superpowers, armed with these monstrous instruments, were willing to obliterate me, and everything I loved, and to put humanity’s very survival in jeopardy, over some trivial and ephemeral matter of political dogma. As a child I would lie awake at night terrified; convinced the world was on the brink of destruction at the hands of insane monsters in Washington and Moscow. Because how else can you describe a leader who tolerates, much less encourages, such a state of affairs? Surely any sane and moral leader would not – could not – rest until agreements had been reached and treaties signed to ensure that atomics, and the horror they bring even by their existence, were consigned to the history books.
As the Cold War thawed, these fears receded. Progress was being made, and cooperation between east and west offered hope. For a time it seemed that sanity would prevail. Efforts were made to reduce nuclear arsenals; agreements were reached.
And now east and west seem bent on another escalation of tensions. East tests the boundaries; West responds with confrontational rhetoric. Sabres are rattled.
The media – a far greater engineer of terror than any proscribed political group – does what sells newspapers, and stokes up fear. And I, with my irrational mind, soak up that fear. And I’m back in the 1980s again: a scared little girl terrified to go to sleep for fear of what the world may be tomorrow.
How do you stop it? How do you make it better when the men in charge – these powerful, wealthy men – don’t seem to want it made better? When they can’t even agree that talking to each other, for as long as it might take to reach agreement, is the only viable option?
And how do you manage a fear that denies you breath, that makes you sob, sometimes, with its intensity – that darkens all the joyous moments and memories of life by shading them with overlaid images of destruction, and pain, and loss?
How do you embrace and overcome a fear that great? At least, how do you learn to ignore it?
For certain, in my case the problem is me, rather than the world. I’m under no illusion: this is a psychological issue. Others manage to live their lives and function normally against the same backdrop, and so should I be able to. The fears I have for my wife, my family, my friends, are not fears that they probably feel for themselves. They see the same world with the same problems, and they may well worry; but their worries are proportionate. They know what they can affect and what they can’t. They know their own fears and probably trust themselves to cope with crisis. They are people in their own right, they have agency, they don’t need the constant attention of my fears.
Perhaps there is a way to make the rational part of my brain dominant over the animal, panicky part. If so, I would love to find it.