Thursday, March 29, 2018

Remarkable Encounters – Part 2 : Fear

It is said that we discover some parts of ourselves only in the context of our interaction with others. Some of these interactions are so enriching that they leave us feeling more complete, integrated, alive and human. In this series of posts, we will look at the impressions from some of the remarkable encounters I have had. In the first post, we looked at my impressions from the encounter with a remarkable teacher (See Remarkable Encounters – Part 1 : Teacher). In this post, we will look at a constant companion to many of us – fear. Now, fear is not a (legal) person. But, the amount of time many of us spend with fear and the impact fear has on us would make fear more real than many humans in our lives. Hence, fear gate-crashes into this series!

‘Do you have an independent existence?’, I have often wondered. Because it is always ‘fear of something’ and not fear itself that is commonly mentioned. Yes, it can be a general sense of fearfulness, when we can’t identify a particular cause or when there are multiple causes.

Some people say that you are just a label, or an ‘umbrella term’, that we attach to a physiological reactions to danger triggered by the hormones generated by amygdala in the brain, and, that animals also can feel fear though they don’t bother to attach a label to it or talk about it. They just do the fight or flight response and resolve the fear! In humans, the danger can be psychological or ideological in addition to physical ones, with the first two being much more difficult to run away from! Only the innocent, the ignorant or the psychologically damaged are immune to fear!

In my journey with you over the last four decades, I have got to know you a lot better. It is funny that while you are real, you can be caused by both real and imaginary things. The unknown and the unpredictable usually outweigh the known and predictable as the causes. What is rational fear and what is irrational fear (phobia) is not always crystal clear because when and how much fear should be felt is often socially conditioned. You have many shades ranging from mild uneasiness to terror and horror. Fear can be conscious, sub-conscious or even unconscious with the unconscious ones being more difficult to surface and address. Fear can be developed through direct experience or vicariously. Some fears (e.g. fear of snakes and fear of heights) could even have been hardwired into humans during biological evolution. Fear is also powerful motivator (See The power of carrot and stick). Since fear can be conceptualized as chemical, biological, psychological, sociological or even moral reaction or any combination of them, the prescriptions to deal with fear vary widely!  

While you are inevitable, the response to you is a matter of choice at least in humans. You have a great ability to grow if we think too much about you or even when we try not to think about you. And you diminish if we can find something else to occupy the psychological space you occupy. Love is a great candidate to push you out and so are  enthusiasm and purpose. Yes, enthusiasm means ‘’being possessed/inspired by God’’ and love is also not too different! Religion can both take away some fears and create new fears. But spirituality does a better job of taking away fears than creating fears!

Fear is a clean emotion, a useful warning signal, and essential for survival as individuals and as a society. Quite a bit of the power of the state is derived from its ability invoke fear by the threat of punishment. Also, the fear of a common enemy has held together many states in the absence of a common purpose!. 

It is interesting that while humans are pain avoiding creatures, many of them will pay to experience fear, say by purchasing tickets for horror movies. May be, a minimum dose of fear is required! Yes, too much fear can be dysfunctional. Fear is a much more useful feeling that its cousin anxiety, which occurs as the result of threats that are perceived to be uncontrollable or unavoidable. Fear is one of the basic set of human emotions and  the ability to fear is one of the things that makes us human. It is the layers that we build on fear that causes most of the trouble.

The list of things that can evoke fear is practically endless – from death to public speaking and everything in between including polar opposites like intimacy & loneliness, success &   failure and freedom & restriction. But the most debilitating fear is the fear of fear, because (being a second order fear) it escapes our built-in machinery (which is a first order one) to deal with fear! 

Being able to acknowledge the fear and feel the fear without fearing the fear itself has been my greatest learning from my long journey with fear because it enables more constructive and hopeful responses to fear. Interestingly, just being able to name/identify/articulate the fear is highly therapeutic (may be that is why 'getting the ghost to reveal its name' is so important in exorcism rituals!) as it reduces the degree of control/impact the fear has on us. Gradual/controlled exposure to the feared object/situation puts us on the royal road out of the land of fear, which is by working through it. I have also found it insightful to map what my fears are at a particular stage in my life and to examine how they evolve. May be, fear is a useful indicator to facilitate both our external and internal journeys!

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