Fear is a fundamental feature of all living beings, including us. Our bodies are deeply wired for fear, as well they should be. No living creature can survive for long without a threat-identification system that is quick, primitive, and powerful. In the old days, when we were primate-like creatures foraging for food on the savannah, fear alerted us to the presence of predators or other dangers to life and limb. Today in the modern world fear is often more abstract and indirect. We can become afraid from something we see on TV, read on social media, or hear from friends. Covid has made everyone afraid, even though it is not a lion or crocodile, but an invisible threat that we need to trust scientists and doctors to fully believe in.
Everyone has fear, but men have a particularly complex relationship to it. We men are socialized not to show fear, and to think that being fearful is a sign of our weakness, lack of “manliness,” or (shudder) cowardice. You don’t hear the word “coward” used the way it was in earlier times, but there are many cruder synonyms for it—such as “chicken” or “yellow”—that you hear today. I have read that military training relies on a soldier’s fear of being seen by others as afraid as a powerful motivator to risk his life by plunging into battle and facing bullets. In other words, young men would, it seems, rather face death than the opprobrium of their buddies. That’s how we have been socialized as men, and that conditioning runs deep.
It used to be that the phrase “be a man” was synonymous with being courageous, or being fearless. Times have changed, but that social expectation is deeply embedded in many men. In reality, everyone feels fear, and many people feel it quite often. Constant fear can make us psychologically and physically ill. But acknowledging fear as normal helps. I have met or heard from members of the military special forces who privately have admitted that not only do they feel fear in the heat of battle, but they don’t really want a seemingly fearless person on their team. Fear makes them cautious and alert, and better able to protect each other and complete their mission. A “hot dog,” to use a slang term for a glory-seeker or risk taker, is not respected in that context.
There is fear—which is endemic to being human—and then there is fear of fear, which is something different. Part of dealing with fear, whether of a justified or imagined threat, is treating fear not as an enemy to be gotten rid of, but as a friend to be appreciated for what it is trying to do, which is protect us. Even though the fear can be irrational, or out of proportion to the threat, the intention of the fear is at root helpful. Fear wants us to be safe, like a concerned parent.
There has been much research on how people judge the severity of a threat, and the truth is that risk assessment is not rational, but emotional. For example, airplane travel is many times safer than car travel, but many people are quite afraid of flying—especially after hearing news of a plane crash—but think nothing of getting in the car and driving somewhere, even while intoxicated. A car crash is usually survivable, while a plane crash is not, so the plane crash incites the deepest sort of fear, while we travel by car all the time and think nothing of it—making us think that a car is safer than an airplane, which is the opposite of the truth.
I myself use a three-step process for dealing with my own fears. First, when I feel fear or have a fearful thought, I say to myself, Fear is my friend. That helps set the tone. Then I ask my rational mind to assess the objective risk of the threat. Often—as with car vs. plane–the rational mind sees a much lower threat than the emotional mind. And last, I ask myself what action I should take, if any. Fear is basically a call to action—to do something. Responding with even a small action can ameliorate the fear.
So for example, now we are facing yet another variant of Covid, the omicron. Not much is known yet, but it is possible that it could cause more serious disease or even evade the vaccines. I notice some anxiety in myself about this. I am 74 years old with pre-existing conditions; I am vulnerable. My anxiety is a call to action; what should I do, if anything? I put my rational mind to work. I am fully vaccinated plus booster. Probably I will still have significant immunity, that’s what most of the scientists say. Meantime, is there any action I should take? I wear a mask (sometimes two masks, one cloth, one paper) when indoors and out in public, but I remember my physician recommending N95 masks. Two years ago, N95 masks were hard to get, but now they are available for next day delivery. So I order some for myself and my wife. I feel better. My anxiety has resulted in some useful action.
Try this with your own fears, as they come up. Will this method make your fear go away? Probably not, but you may begin to develop a different relationship to your fears, a wary friendship that is more positive than just letting it fester in the pit of your stomach, making you miserable.
Start with step one: fear is your friend.