Monday, August 27, 2007

The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself

The title is from Franklin D. Roosevelt's first inaugural speech, in 1933. It a great quote -- but it doesn't really mean anything. The speech itself is wonderful, however, go read it.

Over on Dan Moran's blog, there is a thread on the foolishness of martial arts that is also worth reading. It sparked some thoughts about fear and how to deal with it. I started there, and decided to offer a couple more ideas here.

(To martial artists: Don't read Dan's posting with a knee-jerk reaction to the word "foolishness," that's not the point he's making.)

Um. Anyway, back to fear.

People have different ways of reacting when fear peeps through their widow late at night. Some pull the covers over their heads. Some get up and reach for the phone. Some go to the window. How I learned to handle many of my basic hair-raisers and stomach-clutchers was a process sometimes referred to as Napoleonic Compensation -- because he was a short and slight fellow, ole Boney conquered most of his world to make up for it ...

One can run. One can hide. One can go forth to meet it -- head-on, or at an angle.

When faced with something for which I felt some level of real worry, shading sometimes into full-blown terror, my personal process evolved. First, I learned as much about the subject as I could intellectually. Then I looked for some study that would allow me to master, or at least fight to a draw, with my fear. This wasn't consciously, until much later in life. It was just what I did.

I was terrified of the water as a child. My father's method of teaching us how to swim was to show us the strokes in shallow water, and then toss us into the deep end. At eight, I managed to thrash my way to the side. My little brother, six, sank like a brick, and my father had to dive in and fish him out. So, yes, I could swim, after a fashion, but I was afraid that I would drown. Somebody pushed my head under during Marco Polo, I panicked.

So I took all the Boy Scout lifesaving classes, the junior, the senior. I took the Water Safety Instructor course from the Red Cross, and I got a job as a lifeguard where I spent several summers around and in the water. I taught swimming classes, swam a mile a day, and the summer I was seventeen, could hold my breath underwater for four minutes. I turned myself into a porpoise, got so comfortable in the water that one day, I looked up and there was absolutely no more fear connected to it. I might drown, but I was as waterproof as I could be. I loved the pool. D0n't swim much now, but I still love it.

Same deal with getting beaten up. I didn't really get thumped much as a little boy, but I was a scrawny, smallish kid until well into high school, and I worried about being bullied. I was afraid of it. Truth was, I gave as good as I got, and out of a handful of fights, I won more than I lost. But fear lives in a deep cave, and you have to shine a bright light in there to see well enough to shoo it out.

So, martial arts. Karate. Okinawa-te. Kung fu. Tai chi. Aikido. Kendo. Finally, Silat. I did it for a time before I stopped dying a thousand deaths, and by then, I had found something much more than just being able to defend myself, I had found a Path. Been on it since.

These days, the question is not whether I can defend myself or family against a threat, but how to do it the most efficiently, with the least amount of effort and damage ...

I used to get stage fright pretty good. So I took speech classes, did plays, strummed my guitar in public, and even did stand-up at a couple of science fiction conventions. Steve Barnes and I once did a "Whose Line is it Anyway?" routine at a con, off the cuff, winging it, and if comedy is hard, improv comedy is a tightrope act.

How well did we do? Pretty well, actually, but it doesn't matter. We got up and did it.

The fight isn't under the glove. It's under the hat.

Fear of assorted deadly diseases got me into medicine, where, after nursing school, I taught myself enough to challenge and pass the PA-C exam. I was for some years a PA at a Family Clinic.

I can't cure cancer, but at least I know the ways to fight it, if it should come to call.

Knowledge is truly power. Even a single candle is better than cursing the darkness.

This is not to say that I am particularly brave or adept. Being an autodidact works for me, but it tends to leave gaps in one's education. And not everything is amenable to study and training.

How to overcome the worry that your teenager might die in a traffic accident on Saturday night is a tough one. Lying awake after midnight listening for the front door to open was in my past, and I expect for those of you with children not yet teens, it will be in your future.

The Buddhists have something called The Four Noble Truths. The essence of these are:

1. Life involves suffering.
2. There's a reason for suffering, and the reason is attachment.
3. There is a way to deal with attachment, and you can learn it.
4. The way is the Eightfold Path.

I'm not a Buddhist, but the first three truths resonate fully with me, and I'll stipulate that the fourth has a lot of good material in it. It's not a religion, it's an ethical system, and it does offer answers. I don't accept them all, but a lot of the man I have come to be involved figuring out who I didn't want to be, and how best to avoid that. Living in fear was high on that list of things I didn't want to be.

Sometimes knowing which path you don't want to take is the way to get headed in the direction you do.


Mike said...

It seems to me there must be different types or grades of fear. For example, being fearful of making a fool of yourself in public (e.g. forgetting how to play Stairway to Heaven on stage) might be quite different than the fear that comes from having your engine quit at 500 feet above the ground in a dive bombing pass, an experience I've heard described as "a cold rush of urine to the heart." And these fears seem entirely different than the "monster under the bed" fears you might have had as a child. Fear can sometimes be perfectly rational; sometimes it isn't, and I also suspect the degree of fear isn't always proportional to the actual threat. It does seem to me that attachment is the key, though. And yes, it was a good speech. But if you'll recall that was the same fellow that, not so many years after this speech, put a rather large number of Americans in prison camps in gross violation of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Fears, real or imagined, seem to be a handy tool for politicians but I suppose today people are smart enough to tell when their fears are being manipulated. Uh huh, sure they are...

Steve Perry said...

Sure. And fear serves a useful function -- if you see shark fins cutting through the water and red clouds roiling, being afraid of going for a swim therein is not a bad thing.

Healthy fear is a survival characteristic.

It's the unreasoning fear of things that you have some ability to control that I'm mostly talking about.

Politicians as a class are professional liars, and what they promise versus what they deliver is seldom a close match. FDR went on to do some ugly things, but the speech was good. Talk versus the walk -- which he couldn't do and lied about, too ...

murid_aisha said...


You amaze me. That's quite a list of lifetime achievements. To think, I admired you as an author and an all around gentleman. You're quite an intricate sort.

When fear strikes, I try and remember what a good friend and sister Trisha once told me "If all we have to fear is God, who loves us and wants us to be happy... then that is a wonderful and comforting idea."
Of course then I practice with Cotton, and his fist rushing toward my face makes the eyes instantly watery. But it reminds me to be more vigilant and step it up a bit.

Your post was very interesting. Incidentally, I've been looking for the "Four Noble Truths" by the Dali Lama for years, it appears the Todd has found it. YAY. See you shortly.