Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself?

What's your favorite color? Who's your role model? If you could have a superpower, what would it be? What are you most afraid of?

Everything from first-day-of-school icebreakers to internet quizzes ask these sorts of questions in an attempt to have you reveal something about yourself so others can get to know you better. Left for another day is what exactly green or Shaquille O'Neal or invisibility reveals about your personality; today I'm thinking about fears.

Most people when asked to name their greatest fear say something like snakes or spiders: very specific, tangible things which probably do give them the shivers when they encounter them. But very rare are the people who actually have crippling fears of spiders, who spend their nights quaking with fear that tonight will be the night they'll swallow one of the seven spiders the average human apparently unwittingly consumes in his or her sleep.

No offense, but creepy-crawlies and other animals are kind of an immature fear. They prompt basically gut-level evolutionary responses. Very few people honestly have no reaction to snakes, spiders, bees, wasps, mice, rats, sharks, and the like, but most of us don't actually experience real, true, soul-crushing horror at the thought of such things or spend large chunks of our lives in mortal dread of possible stings or bites. Citing a fear of bees, though, is an easy way to admit to a fear without embarrassment. Bugs and such are socially acceptable fears.

Nobody ever mentions the things of which they are really and truly terrified, about which they stay up at night worrying, the thought of which is accompanied by a feeling in the pit of the stomach: the discovery their partner doesn't love them or has never loved them, the death of a child, dementia, nonexistence, humiliation in front of people whose opinion matters, poverty, debilitating illness, running out of money before running out of life, being friendless, failing at something important to them, completely screwing up the raising of their children, being stupid or inadequate...

These are real fears, and so naturally nobody's ever going to mention them as part of a getting-to-know-you exercise. Before you know someone, there's no way you're going to let yourself feel that vulnerable. I'm guessing either these are the sorts of things that just make everyone feel uncomfortable because nobody wants to think about them or that the sharer would fear looking stupid for sounding neurotic. Animal bites and stings are nonthreatening as a fear; nobody mocks you for being scared of wasps because everybody's scared of wasps...and why not? They sting! It hurts! Well, everyone's scared of being unloved and alone, of failure, of death and nonexistence and the unknown, too.

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