June 7, 2012

Opinion: The conquest of fear, the terror of ourselves

Lance Cpl. Bill Waterstreet
Desert Warrior Staff

Recently I saw a horror film where all the characters were continuously running scared in the traditional horror fashion. Normally, I don’t put much stock on such movies on an intellectual level, but as the story progressed I realized many of their predicaments resulted from them acting on the sole basis of fear. They might have made it out alive had they kept level heads and not been overcome with terror.

Such fear is innate to the human psyche. It has been with us since the dawn of man, and it has served us well; we evolved this way for a reason. The capacity for fear molds our behaviors, shaping our decisions to err on the side of caution and choose self-preservation first. When we see a dark, ominous cave in the woods, fear tells us there is danger in there and causes us to turn around and walk away, possibly saving our lives.

That said, we must never let frightened apprehension devolve into paralyzing terror. Fear is an emotion that must be controlled, controlled not with the leash but rather the lash. Half-measures will not work; we must master our fear or it will master us.

Today, many in our society fall victim to our basic emotions and in moments of crisis will let frightened minds control them.  Case in point, the Station Fire in West Warwick, R.I., 2003, caused the deaths of 100 people because panic took the crowd and caused a stampede which trapped many of the victims inside, where the blaze consumed them.

The perception of danger, whether true or imagined, forces us to action we would otherwise never consider, given a calm, rational state of mind. Something as simple as determining a man of Arabic descent as a threat at an airport because of his heritage alone will completely change our behavior.

Thus, fear must be mastered if we are to function in a time of crisis. Such terror exists as an instinct, and to give up logical thought to the impulsion of instinct removes the single facet that has led humanity to rise above the animal kingdom – intellect. We have the ability to function on a higher mental plane, and to give up that power is to handicap ourselves when we most need all our faculties in check.

George R.R. Martin once wrote, “Fear cuts deeper than swords.” The human body and mind are capable of magnificent feats in times of crisis, but only if we can find it in ourselves to face danger with courage in our hearts. Fear will always make an enemy seem more indomitable and an obstacle more insurmountable than it is. To clear the haze from our eyes and look clearly on the threats we face will reveal the reality that the dangers before us are not as perilous and invincible as we imagined.

However, fear powerful enough to shape our lives does not only exist in emergencies, but also in our everyday actions on a much more subtle level. When we ignore a career opportunity that would greatly alter our lives, neglect to ask a beautiful stranger out due to fear of rejection, or decide against taking initiative because the risk of failure, shame or punishment is present, that is fear controlling us.

Of course we rationalize those moments and thoughts that scare us, such as choosing not to make the new career choice because you need to get something done first or neglecting the initiative because you are doing something more important. The sad truth is we are letting fear steer our lives, and in the process of permitting it, we are fooling ourselves into docility. Letting the terror instinct meld with our higher, logical thought processes in this way gives up the keys to the Corvette that is life. With fear in control, it will seek safety and park our hundreds of horsepower in the garage, never to see the road again.

This is not to be mistaken as advocacy for recklessness. Our corvettes aren’t meant to do 120 miles-per-hour in a residential zone, but should we find ourselves alone on the highway, sun shining and wind in our hair, never be afraid to let those horses sing.

There are times in all our lives we will come face-to-face with what scares us most, and the fear will be there. But as the great World War II leader Winston Churchill once said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Whether we let our nightmares continue their dominion over us, or rather rise up and awake from our fitful slumbers is the truest measure of our characters.

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