1. An emotion experienced in anticipation of some specific pain or danger (usually accompanied by a desire to flee or fight)
2. An anxious feeling
3. A profound emotion inspired by a deity
What are you afraid of? Are you afraid of something bad happening to you; are you afraid that someone might kill you or your family? It seems that this is the case now. We double bolt our doors, we lock our windows, we lock our cars, we are afraid walking down a dark street in case we are attacked, we have a police force and an army to make us feel less afraid. We even buy lethal weapons to protect us, but nothing seems to allay our fears. We are all afraid sometimes, and sometimes the fear is real, related to a specific danger we can physically see (such as a man pointing a gun at my head); but generally, the fear is just an anxious feeling, with no place in reality. We are afraid of something happening, that although we cannot yet see, triggers our ancient fear response system, fight or flight, which prepares the body to defend itself, or run away. So fear is a natural response, generated by the brain to protect us, and it has served us well. In the past, if we didn’t have this fear, we would have been eaten by wild beasts looking for their next meal, so not having this auto-response would have signalled the end for homo sapiens. A being with no fear response cannot judge danger and becomes a victim, simple as that. So in the knowledge that this is normal we can progress with our enquiries further.
Throughout history, humans have fought one another for territory, females, and food, something we share with other species; so this response has kept our family groups safe from harm. This is the natural world at work. This is pure survival of the species. Unfortunately, the fear response was only supposed to be generated in the moment – the moment we were actually being attacked – not in response to some unknown attack that may, or may not occur in the future; that is a wholly modern problem. We are afraid of everybody we don’t know. If we pass someone on the street who looks a certain way, or who acts in a certain fashion, we are instantly afraid. We rush to our destination and lock the door behind us. Only then do we feel safe. So what is this feeling? If the person did not try to attack us or cause us harm why were we afraid of him? What is this feeling of relief we get when we get home and bolt ourselves in? What causes us to feel fear when we pass one man and not another?
Well, I would like to talk to you about your brain! Thanks to our unique human brain, we can construct our world view “on the fly,” and we use all tools at our disposal including experience, memory, and imagination.
To give you a clearer example of what I mean, I recently asked my girlfriend from the czech republic about fear. “If you were walking down a dimly lit street at night and you saw two black men approaching you, would you be afraid?” “Why would I be afraid of a black man?” she answered. “Would you not think they may try to attack you, rob you, or rape you?” “No, of course not.” “Well is there someone you would be afraid of?” “Oh yes, if I saw two gipsy men walking towards me, I’d be petrified, I’d definitely turn and walk quickly the other way.” “Why?” “Because you can’t trust them, they’ll steal from you any chance they can.” What do you think of this observation?
For someone in london, it may be the opposite; but what I would like to explore with you, is that people are making automatic – though not necessarily instinctive – judgements about a human being from a distance. How do we do this? Well, we hear on the television that a black man killed someone, or we hear reported that a black man was involved in some crime or other. We then hear our parents’ or friends’ opinions on black people, and we make an automatic association with that memory when we next encounter a black man, whether or not we have any experience of being attacked by someone who looks like that!
It makes no difference if it is a black man, indian, arab, white man, chinese man, or someone who just wears clothing that resembles a man you saw on tv being sought by the police for a violent rape. The mind takes the image, which it then stores, takes the description of the threat through language, and both are combined in the fear database which is then tested against everyone you encounter in your daily life to see if it fits, just like a police mug-shot. “The perpetrator has black skin, shifty eyes, is heavily built, wearing a grey tracksuit, be on the look out for anyone who resembles this description, but do not approach him, he is highly dangerous.” reports the police spokesman on the radio.
Then the good old imagination kicks in when you see someone who has some slight resemblance to the man wanted: “Oh my god, that man looks like the man they’re looking for on the tv. What if he attacks me?”
The stereotype is born.
Even if the man you just passed was not a violent mugger, rapist, or a murderer, he suddenly becomes one – or at least has the potential to become one, when tested against the image in your fear database. “Yes, but so many black men do attack women…” “Muslims (because they may look the same as a terrorist you saw a photo of) are fanatics, look at the number of people they have blown up in the world…” And yes, some black people can be violent, some muslims may blow themselves up, some men wearing tracksuits do steal from people, but some businessmen in suits kill people, some policemen are violent, some loving husbands and fathers are serial killers and rapists, but so many aren’t, and don’t! How many black robbers are there in the world? How many white serial killers, chinese rapists, or arab suicide bombers?
The fact remains that whoever you believe and whatever you see on television, not everyone who you think looks like they may kill you is actually going to do it! You may think you know, but you have no idea what is going on in someone else’s mind.
Until they do something in the moment.
“but what if?” “you never know” “you have to be on your guard”
We are so worried that something may happen to us that we prepare for the event in case it ever does, which, if you like statistics, will probably never happen. Living your life predicting that something bad is going to happen to you or your family is like living life trapped in an invisible prison, one of fear of the unknown. “But a gypsy killed my family, isn’t that proof enough to be scared of gypsies?” When we all start thinking like this, we have condemned everyone on the planet.
Let’s talk about the unknown for a moment shall we? What is the unknown? Well according to the dictionary, it is simply “not known before,” and although you may feel uncomfortable or apprehensive in a foreign country or area, or may stand out because of your dress, skin colour, or the language you speak, not everyone is going to kill you; the same goes for your own area or country. And even if they did, what are you actually afraid of?
Death, which is final, or the moment when someone attacks you? Aren’t you actually just imagining how afraid you will feel, even though the event has not yet happened and may never happen? It is sad that we have developed such generalised anxiety in relation to the unknown. It is stopping us from transcending fear, and seeing it for what it is; an automatic emotional response designed to protect us from the jaws of wild beasts. It may be that the world has become more violent and we must protect ourselves, but humans have always been violent towards each other. There is nothing in our development that has suggested otherwise, but that is something that needs to be dealt with by the violent individuals, they have to know their minds, and learn compassion for other human beings. That is not our problem. You and I have a short time available to live a fulfilling life on this planet, and fear holds us back. It limits our minds, it does not allow us to show compassion for everyone. It is the judge and the censor, protecting us from an imagined violent death.
Watch the zebras and antelopes grazing on the savannah on the great plains of africa. Do they show fear even though there is a lion sitting only a hundred metres from them? No. They carry on with life. They are aware of the lion, and do not willingly put their heads in its mouth, but they have work to do. They have to eat, and eat they do. It is only when the lion is hungry, and starts stalking them, that they take notice and make a run for it. In the same manner, humans automatically defend themselves if their life is to continue.
So if someone attacks you, that is the moment when showing fear will be the last thing on your mind. It is our nature to want to survive, and you will do anything you can to survive, just like the zebras do when the lion attacks. Whether by using language to calm the situation, using the flight mechanism or in the case where it is impossible to do either, fighting off your attacker hopefully with the help of compassionate strangers (although I am not so naive as to think that adopting a non-violent stance, whilst someone is holding a knife to your throat, intent on killing you, is the way forward either.)
Violence is deeply entrenched in our brains, as is fear, and it is our responsibility as humans to understand both of them, and in doing so, transcend them. I will embrace the unknown I am not afraid of you You may hurt me, you may kill me but in my mind I am free I will not let fear imprison my mind We are all afraid of different things.
Some people are afraid of flying, some afraid of heights, some of being alone, some of the dark, but I think the one thing that unites us all in fear, is the fear of death. When someone talks about being afraid of flying it is not the flying that causes the increased heartbeat and sweaty palms, but a fear of crashing and ultimately dying. These may be extreme examples, but fear is universal, it affects everything we do in life – the way we act, the way we plan.
We are all so afraid! Of what? The unknown? The future? You see, you cannot be afraid of the past, it is a technical impossibility. Why?
Because you have already experienced it, so it is not unknown any more. All this silly fear thing is about is the fear of the future, of events that have not yet happened or may never happen, because…
They are in the future! We must see through this together right now. If I am afraid of the future, how can I live life peacefully today? “I am afraid that my marriage might fail. I imagine scenes of anguish, I imagine about where I would live, what would happen to the children, what would I do, who would want me if I am divorced with three children…”
Except it hasn’t happened!
Thanks to your imagination (which is a wonderful thing if used to imagine positive and happy things), you are now worked up about an event that not only hasn’t happened, but may never happen.
Bring your mind back to NOW. The present. This moment. You have it within your power to attempt to save your marriage, and if you can’t, well you will have to deal with that when the moment arises. “I am afraid I will not pass my exam, and then I will not get a good job, I imagine my parents being angry with me, my teachers being disappointed with me, and my friends laughing at me because they passed and I didn’t. I see myself working as a labourer for the rest of my life, I imagine myself living in a tiny flat, not the nice house I thought I would live in…” Except it hasn’t happened.
You still have a chance to study to get good marks to get the good job, and if you don’t, it’s not the end of the world, but you will deal with that when the moment arises. Do you see? It is not the actual event we fear. It is not the lion charging at us less than fifty metres away we fear, it is the thought that one day a lion may come, and may attack us and may kill us, and oh, how terrible that would be.
Can you see now? Fear of the unknown is just a misuse of the imagination. Do not fear the unknown, being afraid of it will not help you right now! I am amazed by how many clairvoyants there are out there.
You can all see such terrible things happening in your future! It’s amazing that the world is still such a wonderful place with all of you imagining such terrible things. If you wish to look into the future and imagine, try imagining a peaceful life for yourself and all of your family and friends and a life filled with fun, laughter, and love. That is the best you could ever imagine.
I want to spend a little time going back to when we were young, before we became adults full of fear. Do you remember being scared as a child? I do, but not in the same way I am now. I was not afraid of people because of their skin colour, or worried about dying in a plane crash. Life was too much of an adventure to be scared, and anyway, I had my parents to reassure me that everything was going to be all right. I remember being scared of the dark, as every child presumably is at some point, but looking back, I can see that the dark was just the unknown. You couldn’t see anything that was familiar, so the imagination starts conjuring up crazy thoughts, which inevitably leaves you feeling so scared that you have to run into your mum and dad’s room! I always remember being lost (for moments only) in a supermarket where I couldn’t see my mum, and I instantly felt scared. Where was she, had she left me? But fear of abandonment is quite natural for a child; they need the protection of their parents until they are grown up enough to look after themselves.
What I want to understand with you here, is where the fear developed from. We are born with a hard wired fight or flight mechanism designed to stop us being killed, but is it possible we are also born with a fear of the unknown?
As humans, we develop later than most animals and we need protecting, but a baby cannot be scared of being attacked or killed, or have a fear of flying because it has no concept of it in his brain. As he grows up, he sees a boy punch another boy, he hears anger, he listens to his father talk about people, he sees news on the tv, he listens to his teachers; and when adults start talking children should start to be afraid, because they are bringing all their social conditioning, experience, education, prejudices, and general opinions to the children and presenting them as fact! They may not even know they are doing it, but little by little the information trickles into the child’s brain, and with no other information available to compare it with, it is quietly stored.
Parents also like to scare children, even if it’s only for fun. They tell them scary stories, and tell them something bad will happen to them if they don’t say their prayers. They insist it’s good for children to be scared sometimes, because then they will realise that the world is a big scary dangerous place. Well, it is for the adults, because they’ve helped make it like that, and they think they are doing a worthwhile thing by preparing the children for adulthood, but all that is happening is a new generation growing up in fear, thanks to adults driving home the “watch out! be alert! be on guard!” message to their children.
There are many people in the world whose thinking causes them to act in ways that cause others to suffer, and people do commit murder, they do rape, and they do steal, but the real fear lies within the parent, and because they are afraid, they automatically pass this on to their children. I am afraid of X therefore you should be afraid of X. A child doesn’t know any different, it looks to the parent for love, protection, values, opinions, and as they respect their parents, will use their view above anyone else’s – even their own – whilst they are developing.
Adults make children fear the world, and in turn those children become adults who fear, thereby creating an everlasting cycle. Do you think this is how the most advanced species on the planet should be behaving?
Is this “just a phase” we are going through, that we will “grow out of,” or do you think we will continue to become more afraid?
Do you think our cavemen ancestors were afraid? I would think most definitely! But of wild beasts, not of each other. You see, in the past, we lived in small family, or kinship (a close connection marked by community of interests or similarity in nature or character) groups. We knew everyone. They were our friends and family and we looked after each other (even if we fought from time to time), in much the same way that small villages exist throughout the world today; but things started to change as we became more organised, and food was no longer hunted and gathered.
Agriculture was born, and with the surplus of food created, people were able to specialise, we came together in larger groups, and we found we knew fewer and fewer people. Cities were built, and people came to the city to work. Family and kinship group ties were severed, and increasingly, people found themselves working in geographical areas they were unfamiliar with, working with people they didn’t know. Then families started migrating to these cities from other countries. People who looked different, ate differently, spoke differently, even smelled differently. And over time the links back to these groups who looked after each other, who worked and lived together in familiar terrain became severed completely. People were now on their own, and that caused them distress. Men were now separated from their families by large distances in order to earn money to provide food, and other essentials. The more money we earned, the more possessions we could then afford to buy – from the “essential,” to the luxurious. After some time when we had built up an array of possessions, and we suddenly realised that someone, anyone could come and take them all away from us. The possessions we had worked hard for!
Our emotions responded, by letting us feel the same fear we would if someone was trying to steal our food – in essence, a survival instinct.
Except we didn’t need these possessions to survive. Our brains were not advanced enough to tell the difference between real life and death situations and imagined ones, but gave us the emotional response all the same, and prepared us for fight or flight.
For such a seemingly advanced species, it is interesting to note that we still fear everything around us.
“Lock the door, you never know who may come in and try to rob us” “Make sure you keep you watch your wallet someone might steal it” “Don’t talk to any strangers” “Avoid dark alleyways at night”
Security vs. Fear
Whilst writing this topic, I am volunteering at a place called holy island, a small island off the isle of arran in scotland, accessible only by boat.
It is a mainly buddhist community, dedicated to peace on earth, and environmental sustainability. There are about fifteen volunteers, and there are courses in meditation going on throughout the year. Do I feel afraid here? Would you feel afraid here? No, I feel no fear, and I’m sure you wouldn’t either. Why? Because I know the people here, although strangers to me, mean me no harm. I know they all want peace and harmony in the world; there are no drugs, no alcohol, and no sexual tension between the sexes. I don’t worry about locking my room, and neither do the other volunteers. There is an underlying trust that bonds everyone.
Compare this to the town or city you live in. Are you sure the people living there mean you no harm? You can never be sure of anyone’s intentions, so obviously you would lock your door at night. It would be foolhardy of me to suggest in a large community to leave your doors unlocked to show you are not afraid, but can you not see what has happened?
We have gone from small, sharing communities where everyone helps, not only themselves, but their neighbours too, to a selfish “I want” society where we have become addicted to possessions. Whether that possession be a portable tv or a car, like small children, we shout “it’s mine, don’t touch it!” We greedily hang on to our “stuff,” not even caring that we can’t take it with us when we die; we just have to have things. It makes us feel comfortable and secure, like a safety blanket, and that is why we must protect our possessions from others who want them…
It seems to me that we are more afraid of losing our possessions than we are of someone coming to attack us. We jealously guard what is ours. We secure our homes with huge locks, gates, and alarms constantly on the alert in case someone breaks in! Do you not think all this is getting a little ridiculous that we want possessions so badly that we have to lock them up to protect them! Are they really worth all the extra stress of caring for them?
On the one hand you do have to have some security to stop someone just walking in and taking everything you have worked for, but you will start to notice that the more you have, the more afraid you will become of losing it. I am not advising you to give up all your possessions, that would probably make you too anxious, but a man living simply, even in a city where he does not know anyone will have no fear, and if you don’t believe me, just try it! When you have no gold, no fancy cars, no electric gates, no fancy wide screen tv, no cash spilling out of your wallet, what do you have to be afraid of. What will you lose? “
What if someone attacks me,” I hear you say, but really, what are the chances of it actually happening?
The more you fear an event the more afraid you will become. I think we have lost the trust in others, the natural benefit of the doubt we give to strangers, and we now believe that everyone we meet is a potential assassin or robber. Don’t you think it’s time we re-evaluated our opinions of others and go into life each day with love in our hearts?
Where there is love there is no fear
Not everyone will have the chance to live on a beautiful remote island dedicated to peace and harmony, in fact the majority of us will have to live in major towns or cities and live amongst strangers. Yes, some may be violent, some may be killers, drug addicts, hooligans, or robbers, but if you live your life focussed on the positive in people and dedicate yourself to a life of peace (no matter what job you do), you will find fear flows out your very being. By choosing this path, you will find that your life will take a different course. You will no longer want and need the same things you did before, thereby freeing yourself from the prison of fear that accompanies possessions. Stop and think about this carefully for a moment and ask yourself the following question: “What would I gain from living a more simple life?”
And follow it by the second question: “What would I lose by living a more simple life?” If you weigh up the two and find you would be losing more than you gained, well you will just have to keep living the way you are, but be prepared to keep fear in your life. Fear of losing all your lovely possessions. All your shiny jewellery, your money, your car… Hang on to it all with a death grip, because someone out there who also loves possessions wants to take it all away from you, so you will have to secure it more and more, and shut yourself away from civilisation. Just in case!
It’s incredible, isn’t it? You are probably more afraid of being robbed in the street than you are of actually dying! In closing, remember we are all here for such a short time, that fear is irrational; we could die tomorrow.
Let’s concentrate on living and enjoying the time we have here on this wonderful planet instead of worrying about bad things happening to us all the time.
You are a part of the most violent and powerful species on the planet, what are you afraid of?