What is it good for?
Any excuse to bastardize some Edwin Starr lyrics. (Though I really shouldn’t be messing with the power of the original song’s message.)
Regardless, Alan’s Sunday post on fear – specifically his terror of snakes – immediately put me in mind of my heart-stopping fear of spiders. And the question he asked is kind of a fascinating one. Where do these fears come from? I have no highly traumatic experience with a deadly spider in my past any more than he has a scarring encounter with a boa constrictor in his so why are we both so gripped with these specific fears? Is it learned or ingrained?
In truth it’s a little of column A and a little of column B with some column C tossed in for flavor. What’s column C? Invention! Humans are complicated animals. Okay, real talk time. Fear is considered one of the innate human emotions and fear response to stimulus is registered in all manner of living creatures. Fight or flight mentality is the survival instinct kicking in and having healthy fears is part of survival. You should be afraid of fire. It can kill you. You should try to extricate yourself from fiery circumstances. That’s an appropriate and rational fear. It’s both ingrained - most creatures (except, you know, the moths in Janet Jackson’s ‘That’s The Way Love Goes’) avoid burninating - and learned - you only need to be scalded on a hot element one time to figure out what sucks about cooking. There is another kind of fear, though, and it encompasses what Alan and I feel about snakes and spiders: inappropriate or irrational fear, also known as a phobia. While it’s true that there are poisonous versions of both snakes and spiders than can do a human harm, most of us have never had a near-fatal encounter with either. I’d say almost none of us have ever been trapped in a pit of giant tarantulas a la ‘The Bamboo Trap’. The fear is mainly irrational, not based on experience and not in response to an immediate situational threat. It’s a conjured cold sweat. Imagination and the sight of all those creeping legs doing away with rationality. Phobias seem to be our way of dealing with things we are uncomfortable with that could pose a threat but haven’t yet and may never. Or they’re a way for our brains to play constant sick jokes on us. (But brain, spiders are never funny.)
One of the most common human fears is that of public speaking. Truth. Most people are terrified of getting up in front of an auditorium full of people and addressing them. And that’s not assuming that the auditorium is full of zombies or rabid wolves, either. Just a bunch of ordinary unarmed humans. I actually think many people would rather face a horde of zombies or rabid wolves than have to give a speech to them, that’s how bad the fear is. So while it may be irrational, it’s incredibly compelling. Phobias are like that: utterly gripping and devoid of explanation. And there are more! The aforementioned snakes, spiders and public speaking as well as death, flying, heights, and the unknown (think ghosts or the future) are the more common ones but there’s a fear of clowns, pain, small spaces, ants, mirrors, the number 13, etc...
If rational fears are a sort of motivator or survival instinct, what are irrational fears for? Seriously, what are they actually good for? On the surface, I guess not a lot. I mean all my fear of spiders gets me is an inability to sleep in my own room if a spider is present and no feasible way to watch the Shelob scene in LOTR: The Two Towers. However, there is something to be said for confronting your fears – an idea Alan outright rejected after recounting his experience with the snake in his yard. (If it had been a spider I’d have been screaming and rejecting logical advice too.) Consider, though, that all fears, rational and irrational, hold a sort of challenge within them. The human experience is essentially one of surmounting obstacles and fear is one of our greatest obstacles. Facing that fear gives you a greater understanding of yourself; of your own power and ability to rise above limitations. Let me put it this way: remember Calvin & Hobbes? Remember Calvin's impersonation of his dad? “Go do something you hate, Calvin. Being miserable builds character.”
Or, if you prefer, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous assertion that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Suggesting that the other side of fear is liberty. Where all our terrors are but imagined.
In a literary sense, fear is the great narrator. Without fear and adversity, characters have little to accomplish and stories go nowhere. That’s not even a metaphor for life, you know - that is exactly life. Fear can be the great narrator of everything good and bad that unfurls in the telling of anybody’s story. But even as strictly a mode of entertainment, without terrors in the night there can be no chills to dole out to readers. There are no jumps out of theatre seats to be had if fear is excluded from the equation. Fear can be enjoyable, you see. It gives us a rush of adrenaline and an equal rush of relief after the fear subsides and we realize we’re safe.
Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.
Fear can save us from injury and death. Fear can challenge us. Fear can hold us back if we let it. And fear can also release us into greater freedom and power. So what is it good for? A lot, as it turns out. Life preservation, education, entertainment, and even character building. (Yes, all your dads were right about that.)
- Corinne Simpson