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Halloween always gives me occasion to reflect on the nature of things scary and otherwise. Fear is a survival instinct; it motivates us to run from danger, turn away from doing foolish things and essentially, behave in a manner that might ensure a longer life.

Fear is also a teacher. It allows us to learn a lot about ourselves. It shows us our shortcomings – and sometimes, our own inner hero. Sometimes we talk about overcoming fear, but I’ve never been comfortable with that. Yes, sometimes we need to get past our fear, but we need fear.

What scares you? Is it things that go bump in the night? Ghosts and ghouls and monsters? Chances are while some of these images in a scary movie might bring screams, the things we’re really afraid of are rooted right here in reality. Our modern fears have to do with failure; failure to provide for our families, failure to protect our children, failure at impressing someone we want to get involved with romantically.

Most of us are scared that we might lose our jobs. This fear can sometimes lead us into doing things to keep our jobs that otherwise don’t make sense. This particular fear has been used against us for decades now, allowing employers to exploit their workers. In feudal times, despots would execute just enough of their subjects to put the fear of God into the survivors. Big corporate employers use layoffs to motivate their remaining employees to work harder and often for less pay, to endure working conditions that they wouldn’t have tolerated years ago. Employers know they have the upper hand; if they don’t get what they want, they fire everybody and relocate their facility to Mumbai, where labor is much cheaper than it is here.

Fear is also used against us in other ways, some more benign than others. Advertisements often intimate that special deals will last only a short time if you don’t ACT NOW. That instills a fear that we will pay more for a product if we hesitate, so we buy something we may not necessarily need because we didn’t take the time to think about it before we acted. That’s a function of fear.

A big fear for a lot of us revolves around how we’re perceived. Often we take on personas of people who we aren’t so that we inspire a certain reaction; we’ll tell people we make more money than we do so that we are regarded as successful in life. We’ll tell people we work a different job than we do so that we’re not thought to be losers because we’re working at Starbuck’s instead of Lockheed.

We work very hard to maintain the illusion of success. We’ll buy cars we can’t afford because we want people to think we’re successful. We’ll brag about trips to Europe and shop at high end retailers for our clothes, forgetting to mention to our friends that our latest purchases left us with $27.39 in our checking account which has to last us for two weeks. This need to feel successful will often cause us not to ask for help when we need it because asking for help is an admission of failure. You see, this illusion of success is often for our own benefit.

Appearing successful is part of the courtship ritual. Whether we’re young people trying to find a lifetime mate or if we’re fresh off of a divorce and entering the dating pool once again, we want to put our best foot forward. We want to be attractive to people, so we build ourselves up in occasionally fraudulent ways. In this digital age, that has become particularly true; more and more often we are interacting on the computer before we do face-to-face, and on the computer there is no body language, no facial expression to read. It’s much easier to tell if someone is lying when they’re right in front of you.

We’ve all been on one end of this practice or the other; how many women out there have had conversations with guys who tell them something about themselves meant to be impressive, only to find out later that it wasn’t true? I’d be willing to bet nearly every woman reading this has had that happen at least once. How many times have you found out that the picture in a person’s profile is either ten years out of date, or a completely different person entirely?

Men aren’t the only ones who are afraid that they’ll be perceived as unattractive. Women will post pictures of themselves in their underwear, in lingerie or in provocative poses to become popular. The way to a man’s heart used to be through his stomach; these days, it’s through sexy pictures on the Internet. Some women do this as a genuine expression of their sexuality; others because they’re terrified of being alone.

That terror is universal. We all want companionship and we all want to share our lives with someone. We also all want someone to care for us, someone who will be there when they’re needed, look after us when we’re not feeling well and celebrate our best moments with us. On America Online I used to hang out in Truth or Dare chatrooms and occasionally I’d be asked what was the thing that most frightened me. The answer was dying alone; I didn’t want to be, at the end of my life, unloved, unwanted and insignificant. I want to be missed when I’m gone; so do we all.

But I learned something about myself then. It wasn’t loneliness per se that scared me, it was lovelessness. After one particular disastrous romantic relationship disintegrated into the usual utter failure that most of my romantic relationships were, I found myself taking stock after that particular heartbreak devastated me more than most. I began to wonder if I was capable of sustaining a romance through to marriage and I had the nagging suspicion that not only did I not deserve to be loved, but I was going to be alone for the rest of my life.

Of course, that was utter nonsense – we all deserve to be loved. When I really sat down and evaluated myself, I came to some surprising conclusions. The first one was that if I was to spend the rest of my life alone, it would be okay. The important thing in life is not to find someone to be with just so that we’re not alone, it’s to find the right one – and even if I never did, living a life that mattered not only to me but to those around me, was essential. I learned that I give my own life meaning; I didn’t need someone else to supply it to me.

That only took me 37 years to figure out which I think is pretty impressive (not to sing my own praises or anything). Once I had come to that revelation, the fear wasn’t so bad. I didn’t especially want to be alone still, but I was okay with it. About a month later, I met Da Queen. Things really do happen in their own time.

For most people, the biggest fear is death. Death is the great unknown, the undiscovered country. We all have heard the stories of white lights and our dear departed waiting for us, but nobody really knows what happens to the consciousness when our bodies stop working. Some people think that we just essentially fall asleep, the lights go out and our consciousness dies with our bodies. Many more believe in an afterlife, be it Heaven, Valhalla or Hell. Some believe in reincarnation, that our souls move from one life to the next until we finally figure out what the hell we’re supposed to be doing here – some call it enlightenment. Most people who believe in an afterlife or next life tend to think that what we do in this life orders what happens in the next.

However, there is still that element of the unknown, that big bad “what if” that even the most sanguine about death experience. What if the people who say we get just one shot at life and when it’s over, it’s over are right?

The way I look at death is this; we’ll all get there eventually, it’s inevitable and fretting about it isn’t going to change a thing. Every day we’re here whether there’s a heaven or whether there’s simply nothingness is a gift, ours to use wisely or squander as we will. I prefer to live my life as fully and with as much joy as I can while I’m here. I want to wake up every morning feeling a renewed sense of purpose, feeling the opportunities that exist for new experiences, new friendships and new knowledge. I want to go to sleep looking forward to waking up. Life is to be treasured and we so take it for granted. Death is nothing to fear; it’s not something to seek out either. It will come to us in our own time, no matter how we try to avoid it. As a comedian whose name escapes me once said, eat healthy, exercise, die anyway. In other words, don’t be obsessive about your health; take time to enjoy life. People who spend hours in the gym every day are just as unhealthy as people who eat far too much and never exercise; their physical health may be superb, but they’re out of shape emotionally. There needs to be balance, even in pursuing good health.

Fear drives us in so many ways, and in some ways it’s healthy but it is in learning to get past our fears that we learn how wonderful life is and can be. Fear should be a tool, not the thing that rules us. While fear can make us weak, it can also make us strong when we learn to use it as a means to improve ourselves. Once we figure out why we’re afraid and learn to embrace and accept what frightens us, we become stronger and more confident in ourselves.

So what are you afraid of? Spiders? Divorce? Cancer? Clowns? Public speaking? Guys with toupees? All scary things, I admit. Joseph Conrad wrote that which does not kill us makes us stronger. I’d like to add to that statement that which makes us stronger doesn’t have to kill us. We all have reserves of inner strength whether we know they’re there or not. Fear is our means to find that strength, and even surpass it.

Halloween is the appropriate time to discuss fear. My last point is this; never ever be afraid to be yourself. Don’t concern yourself with what other people think about you because that’s beyond your control and every attempt to put on masks and costumes will eventually be found out. Be who you are. Those who don’t accept you are people you probably don’t need in your life anyway. Cultivate people who take you as you are; you’ll find that your fear of being rejected will go away when a few people begin to accept you.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt once told a nation in turmoil that there is nothing to fear but fear itself. He had the right of it then, and it’s never been more true than today. We live ruled by our fears and insecurities, and the powerful prey on that as they have since the dawn of civilization. Yet we are much stronger than we think and if we merely look inside ourselves and really stare our own fears in the face, we may come to learn that fear in and of itself is rather overrated.


3 Responses

  1. What mainly fears me is the unknow.
    Not knowing what will be the future of my kids.
    Not knowing how will i die.

  2. good thinking, I’m afraid you’ve done it again

  3. I personally have as one of my favorite quotes, James Cameron’s statement: “Failure is always an option, fear is not.” Love that quote

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