Nothing to Fear — Except Not Responding to Fear

Americans love to be scared, but only when they know they're not really in danger - like at a horror movie or a haunted house. Real fear is really scary, but we shouldn't avoid it.

One U.S. president may have mentioned this before - you have nothing to fear, but fear itself. Still, few people really want to face their fears. Or do they? Could it work out well?

Possibly, so say lessons from history, science, and philosophy.

Fear can be one of the great sources of personal improvement. In particular, fear can help people cultivate several classic virtues that religious figures, sages, and secular moral traditions have all seen as essential for living a well-ordered life.

Yes, studies have been done on the psychopathic qualities of people who take pleasure from fear. That's not processing fear correctly. Enjoying fear and acknowledging it in order to move beyond it are different things.

Courage, for instance, is a virtue that comes from fear — and as philosopher-economist Arthur Brooks explains, it's not a trait derived from the enjoyment of fear, but from the willingness to see a greater good by conquering it.

The confrontation of fear must be oriented toward the common good. In practice, this could mean confronting your fear on behalf of people weaker than you—for instance, risking physical harm to bring someone else to safety in an emergency, or speaking up to stop bullying.

Brooks explains, fear may be the result of being too attached to the existential.

According to the Buddha, the key to freedom from fear is to abandon “passion, desire, fondness, thirst, fever, and craving for sensuality.” There is a famous Zen Buddhist story about a band of samurai who ride through the countryside causing destruction and terror. As they approach a monastery, all the monks scatter in fear, except for the abbot. The samurai enter to find him sitting in the lotus position in perfect equanimity. Drawing his sword, the leader snarls, “Don’t you see that I am the sort of man who could run you through without batting an eye?” The master responds, “Don’t you see that I am a man who could be run through without batting an eye?”

For non-Buddhists, indifference to death might entail a bit more nonattachment than is optimal. But virtually every major faith and moral tradition preaches the same core principle. Christians and Jews see a similar connection between fear and the deadly sin of pride — “an excessive desire for one’s own excellence,” in the formulation of Thomas Aquinas. Modern research might back a connection like this up: Rankings of Americans’ top fears consistently reveal that one of their most prevalent social fears is public speaking. Presumably, the explanation is that people are abjectly terrified of humiliation in front of others.

But don't let your fear of being judged poorly by others get in the way of accomplishing great things. For fear is one of the great motivators of people who have achieved great things. They acted on their fear, rather than cowered from it, and many have created great things for other people as a result.

How do you respond to fear? Do you take flight, stand and fight, and how does your reaction change according to the situation?

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