by Donovan Makus
According to Merriam-Webster, this is a simple word; a word with many positive synonyms ranging from bold and courageous to heroic and intrepid. It’s the title of many books, films, TV series, and works of art; it is generally seen as a positive character trait or attribute, something we should all strive to be. As a society, we generally admire people who exhibit traits of fearlessness, be they firefighters rescuing people from burning buildings, or soldiers with medals received for remaining strong in the face of conflict. To fear is to be weak, we seem to understand, yet is it truly a sign of weakness? Or is it something we should be consider more deeply, especially during this season of haunted houses, ghosts, and other frightening things?
To fear is to be human. We’ve all experienced fear at some point, be it of the darkness of a long hallway, clowns, or the jump from a diving board. When someone overcomes these fears, we celebrate. The kid that jumps from the tall diving board receives encouragement when they resurface. When we grow older, our fears change, although we may still walk with a little more urgency once the sun goes down, or find a way to avoid that trip to the haunted house with the clowns. As our conceptualization of life changes, our fears change from the immediate to the distant, to events we may or may not be able to control. Fear no longer holds us back from joining our friends in jumping from the diving board, but instead holds us back from taking chances, be they relationships or career choices. In all these settings, the typical response is simple: stop worrying and your life will be better, but fear still has a place.
“There are times when fear is good. It must keep its watchful place at the heart’s controls.” This sentiment, first uttered by the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, is one from which we can all benefit. Looking back, how many of our childhood fears had some legitimacy? That fear of the dark? Perfectly reasonable. Our eyes are our primary sensor and, with their effectiveness degraded, we should exercise some additional caution concerning areas we can’t see clearly. Our fear of heights? Easily justifiable; human beings have known for a long time that our bodies don’t take well to rapid drops from any serious height. In all these environments, our childhood fears held us back, being necessary for our development while at the same time reflecting genuine concerns and dangers. As far as the fear of clowns goes, this one should be self-evident; their exaggerated facial expressions and mannerisms are the definition of creepy. Research has shown that children who demonstrate fearlessness demonstrate less empathy, and greater aggression. Perhaps being a little fearful from time to time isn’t so bad after all.
If some fear is justifiable, could it even be a good thing? Perhaps, as Aeschylus suggested, fear could have a place at the “watchful place” of our heart. Fear is a powerful force involved in our socialization; a little fear keeps everything running smoothly. The use of monetary fines, (such as a speeding ticket) to shape behaviour is widespread, and yet another example of using fear in the case of monetary loss is to shape our behaviour towards a socially accepted outcome. Fear also exhibits a biological feature known as the “fight or flight reaction” to sudden perceived danger, which prepares our body for action. Our fear of many things, such as the dark, can be tied to our uneasy history with these uncertainties. Fear also shapes our personal actions. How many of us have forced ourselves to study long after we felt like relaxing for fear of a poor grade on an impending test?
“Fearless” may have many synonyms and antonyms, but if you look deeper, you will see that some of its antonyms, such as “cautious” and “prudent,” are positive ones. In the season of horror movies and haunted houses, fear of chainsaw-wielding visitors or clowns isn’t a bad thing. If you find yourself alone in the woods and come across a kind stranger in a creepy mansion filled with talking objects, your fear would be perfectly justified, although I would also suggest you look for film crews and seek their help.
While some levels of fear can keep us safe, excessive fear is not something to be celebrated or embraced. For those struggling with anxiety or other forms of mental health, fear can be crippling, and those who suffer from it need help. Yet between the two extremes of fearlessness and crippling fear lives a middle ground, one where we can still go cliff-jumping, but only after checking the drop zone for obstacles. Fear doesn’t need to be negative. It can help us survive dangerous situations and, with a healthy amount of it, we can be prepared for whatever life throws at us.