Dealing With Fear — Part 1: Everyday Life

The subject of fear came up in the comments on a recent post, one writer lamenting the life-freezing effects of it. Because the writer’s words felt soooo familiar, I both winced and chuckled. Winced because I’ve been there, chuckled because once again I realized that I’m not the only one who feels this sort of thing.

Quoting Richard Nixon, “Let me just say this about that …”

(I also addressed the subject of fear in another recent post The Most Dangerous Thing You Can Do. )


I took some pictures of a young friend of mine bridge-jumping, just a month or so back. You can click over to see them if you like. It’s a sequence of pics showing him jumping from the top of a 65-foot-high railroad trestle into a river.

(In case this is highly illegal, none of this ever happened. I have no idea where that bridge is, it wasn’t me who took the pictures, and the guy in the pics is a complete stranger. And I believe it happened in Mexico, or maybe Tierra del Fuego.)

I find it so amazing that anybody can even consider such a thing. And for me to photograph the sequence, he had to jump twice. I chose two vantage points to capture the complete feel of the event, one down on the river bank, the other below him on the bridge itself.

Which brought an interesting problem into the thing. Railroad trestles aren’t really built for people to walk out on. One feature of this one was that the … well, call it the floor of the thing, is open. For the whole span of the bridge, there’s one floorboard, and then a wide gap, and then another floorboard, and then another huge gap. Which means, walking on it, you can see through to the river below. And not just a little bit, but a LOT. To me it seemed there was more open space under my feet than bridge.

I’m deathly afraid of heights. Even scenes in movies, anything that has someone hanging over a canyon or looking over the edge of a high-placed balcony, can give me a swoony feeling, forcing me to look away.

So whereas he strode out there with his bridge-jumping posse and began monkeying fearlessly up the slanted steel beams of the thing to the top, I could barely bring myself to walk out onto the flat part of it. Took me several minutes to manage it, while he and his friends waited for me to get into position. Taking one petrified step at a time, breathing fast and shallow, forcing myself to move forward and ignore the yawning gulf below me because I wanted these pictures.

And then — fuck me! — he jumped. It gives me a fluttery feeling, just remembering it. I have no idea how people can do such things.

From the professional side of fear, learning about it and helping people deal with it, I’m an absolute novice. I would never presume to lecture someone on it. (“Hey, all you have to do it just go for it, dude!” —Heard that about a thousand times.)

But from the personal side of it, feeling it, learning to live with it, I think I approach expert level.

Can’t tell you how often I’ve been out for a lark with friends — headed up to a favorite swimming hole, gone to the beach, clambering around on rocks in the mountains, or just out for drinks, dancing, karaoke — and ended up the focus of their bemused stares, that I wouldn’t keep up with them on some of this stuff.

“C’mon, try it. Just one song. Hey, you sing all the time by yourself, all you have to do is step up on stage and do the same exact thing. Look, I’ll hold the mike and start, and you chime in when you feel like it. It’ll be fun! Hell, most of the people here are already drunk off their asses. Nobody’s even gonna notice.”

Yeah. Except … no. Couldn’t do it. Ever.

As I’ve written here before, if I ever pen my autobiography, it’s going to start with the line “I was born afraid.”

I had it from my mom that baby-me liked to watch the goings-on of family gatherings from the safety of his barred playpen. If she took me out, I cried and struggled to be put back. Apparently even my own doting relatives scared me.

And — argh! — that predilection toward fear has followed me into adulthood. It’s like somewhere inside me is a little white bunny convinced that he’s stuck in the middle of a vast plain of short grass, in full daylight, and the entire rest of the world is toothy, rangy predators, galloping happily around out there and about to notice juicy, defenseless me any second.

So the comment about fear really hit home.

And I think it’s germane to what we’re doing here, all us atheists or budding atheists. Because we DO live on that vast plain, and historically we have been stuck in a field of predators. People who would kill us, torture us, burn us, shun us.

How does one deal with that?

First, how do we deal with ordinary, non-atheist-related, fear?

I can only relate my own experience. Like I said, I’m no expert. But for me it boils down to just a few things.

1) I’m okay with the fact that I’m afraid of so much.

It’s okay to be afraid.  Looking at it in an evolutionary sense, there’s probably a natural range of susceptibilities to fear. SOME of us have to be the scaredy cats, so the species can survive when the brave ones all jump off that bridge without checking to see what’s in the water, take all the exciting new drugs as if cheap new replacement brains can be ordered online, sample the hookers in that back street Haitian bawdy house their vacationing buddies told them about, try the cool new stunt of dousing themselves with rubbing alcohol and lighting it on fire before going off the diving board, look down the barrel of the gun or pull the trigger to see if it’s loaded, or go happily off to war to keep the world safe for good American corporations.

Really, fear is probably why the species survived. It’s why we little nebbishly humans, no teeth or claws, are here today.

Some people have good looks, perfect teeth, great heads of hair. I have my fear. It’s a natural trait, perhaps even a gift. I already know I was born this way – for me this is normal, and there is nothing wrong with me.

2) Fear powers foresight.

If you’re one of the fearful, you can imagine all sorts of horrible things happening in even the most normal situation.

Every time I drive over a local bridge, I imagine it collapsing and my truck ending up on the bottom of the river. It’s dark down there, the water is coming in, the door is locked and I can’t see the handle. On the other hand, if that ever does happen, I will instantly know what to do: Scream and keep on screaming until Jesus arrives. (Just kidding.)

I’m always looking ahead for possible dangers. Yes, it’s a little tiring at times, but on the other hand, there have been many times that I’ve saved myself and friends from getting hurt.

My “Wise Old Saying” is: If you could see 5 seconds into the future, you’d never have another accident. And that’s what I try to do. Going-on-60, I’ve never even sprained my ankle. I’ve missed out on broken bones, concussions, emergency room visits, unnecessary stitches – all things my friends got, some of them repeatedly.

I know how to handle knives and guns safely. Because I can see every possible thing that can go wrong. When I have a knife in my hand, I automatically imagine razory vectors extending outward from the blade, and I never allow those vectors to intersect any part of my body. Ditto for guns. Doesn’t matter that “It’s not loaded” – people make mistakes, and  I plan to not be one of the ones who suffer because of it.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve missed being killed while driving or riding a motorcycle, when some other driver did something unexpected and deadly. I don’t even yell at them anymore; I just see to my own safety and keep going.

(And yes, yes, yes, I could have an accident any day, and it would be funny as hell to some of us now that I’ve said all this. It’s still worth it to me to try not to have one.)

3) Fear is intelligent.

Hey, you’re supposed to be afraid of stuff.

Everybody around you is perfectly comfortable with glass beverage containers, right? And what the hell?? What sort of product is so fragile that it breaks when you drop it a mere two or three feet? And then turns into a collection of near-invisible razor-sharp shards strewn randomly across the floor? Possibly in the dark, if you’re in a bar, when your judgement and eyesight is already affected because you’re sucking down the alcohol the thing recently contained? The rest of the world can laugh at me – Hey, they used to make baby bottles out of the stuff! – but to me that’s some shit that’s worth being cautious about.

I’ve seen YouTube videos of bungee jumpers crashing and dying because somebody – an expert! a guy in the business! – forgot to tie off the bungee to the bridge. Or failed to realize that a 55-foot bungee cord is the wrong equipment for a 50 foot bridge jump. Apparently nobody there had brains enough to be afraid that something like that could happen. But if I’d been there, I would have been. I would have checked.

Balcony railings really do sometimes get old and collapse when you lean on them. You really can get your shoelaces, and your fingers, sucked into an escalator. Windows really do sometimes fall out of skyscraper window frames when people bump against them.

Not to mention that going balls-out down a hill on your bike, headed for a homemade ramp and intending to jump 30 feet of asphalt parking lot onto another homemade ramp, seems … well, unwise, to some of us.

The world is full of ski jumpers, cliff climbers, wing-suit flyers and even shark photographers, and I’m happy for them and their triumphs. But I’m not one of those guys. It’s not for me. When I find the things that are for me, I do those things, and never lament missing the dangerous stuff. I can enjoy those other thrills vicariously, or grin as I read about how the shark guy made that one teeny little mistake

Next, or perhaps again:

4) Some level of fear is normal.

For me, it’s this level. When the babies were rolling off the factory floor, this model came with an extra-big hazard sensor system, with the sensitivity turned up to 10 and a vivid, non-stop imagination about possible dangers. A high level of fear is within my normal operating range. I wouldn’t say it’s always wonderful, exactly, but it is normal.

5) You can deal with more than you think.

Some of the fear – maybe not all, but some of it – you can deal with. You can either do stuff anyway, and just live with the fear, or you can overcome the fear. I became a political activist some years back, and discovered that it was okay if certain people disliked me. In fact, it felt sort of good – because I realized I no longer had to be petrified by the slightest hint of disapproval.

There have even been times when I’ve actually been brave. You can think of yourself as a scaredy-cat all you like, but when someone or something you love is threatened, when the insults and indecency rises to a level you just can’t take anymore, you just might find a warrior inside yourself, or a hero. Even little me has been surprised that way more than once.

6) Some of what feels like fear isn’t exactly fear.

Some of it, for me at least, is misinterpreted hypersensitivity. The volume knob on life might be turned up only to 5, but to me it sometimes feels like it’s at 10. The slight frown on the face of a teacher, the exasperation in the voice of a friend, the laughter in the voices of the people already up there at the mike … it’s all mild stuff, on any normal scale. Heck, some people get arrested and beaten up by cops, and apparently end up (eventually) none the worse for it. But to me, when I was a kid at least, the tiniest expressions of disapproval could come across as fearful waves of anger and dislike.

And finally, it’s important to know this:

7) Fear isn’t forever.

There’s lots of stuff you can get used to, so that they no longer make you afraid. I’m comfortable speaking up in public now, something I couldn’t have done in large parts of my earlier life. I don’t mind people getting mad at me as much as I used to. I’ll speak up at injustice and stupidity in ways that I never would when I was a kid.

Some of the fears, stuff that others would label irrational, I’ve worked my way out of. I’ve desensitized myself to them, gradually accustomed myself until each situation felt somewhat comfortable rather than fearful. I may not be able to trot out onto a railroad bridge with blithe unconcern, but I can take a few steps out there. Today, I mean, and if it means something to me. And then take a few more tomorrow, if it still matters.

In the case of social fears, I think it was just that, getting older and more confident in myself, in who and what I was, I no longer gave a shit about what somebody else might say or think about me. Laugh at my cowboy hat, poke fun at my short stature, look sideways at me when I eat my peas with a spoon – my response is an unconcerned shrug. Sometimes I even make jokes about it: “Hey, I’m old. I have every right to be weird.”

I still have some of my silly fears. At this point, I don’t worry about it much. I’ll either get to them or not, but in the meanwhile, there’s still a lot of life to be living. Hey, it’s an ongoing process, and — just like with you — this is an individual journey that I, and nobody else, am on.

And fear or not, every day of it is an adventure.