The Insidious Nature of Fear

I was on Minnesota Public Radio's Midmorning with Kerri Miller yesterday, discussing uncertainty, change, and how to successfully cope with the fear that comes with those things. We didn't discuss the health care debate. But our conversation was relevant to the discussion.

"Why," a caller wanted to know, "do so many people tell you that you can't succeed when you say you want to try something different or go out on your own?"

The conversation went back and forth a bit, partly because the reasons are undoubtedly complex, and also because I hesitate to assign motivations to people I've never met. But after Kerri pressed the question a third time, I finally answered, "Fear." In the context of the caller's question, I meant that some people resist leaving secure and known circumstances or places because they're afraid. Afraid of change, afraid of the unknown, and afraid about their ability to do well in the wilderness of a changed or uncertain environment. But they comfort themselves by saying that it can't be done, or that striking out into something new is an irresponsible or bad choice.

Why do they try to discourage others, as well? Because if someone else "escapes," or succeeds at a new or passionate pursuit, the naysayers might have to look more honestly at the real reasons for their own reluctance. And facing your own fears is a lot harder than convincing everyone else to have them, too.

I think that last bit also at least partly explains the vitriolic tone of some of the recent discussions about changing our health care system. Frank Rich wrote a column that spoke to this point a couple of days ago. In the same vein of the marriage counselor mantra, "what you're fighting about isn't what you're fighting about," Rich says that he doesn't believe the anger at the proposed health care plan is really about the proposed health care plan.

"The twisted distortions about 'death panels' and federal conspiracies 'to pull the plug on grandma' are just too unhinged from the reality of any actual legislation," he argues. "Those bogus fears are psychological proxies for bigger traumas." What traumas? The economy and job loss? "That's surely part of it," Rich says. "So is fear of more home foreclosures and credit card bankruptcies. So is fear of China, whose economic ascension stands in stark contrast to the collapse of traditional American industries from automobiles to newspapers. So is fear of Barack Obama, whose political ascension dramatizes the coming demographic order that will relegate whites to the American minority."

In other words, all the hyperbolic rants could be boiled down to, "I want my world back!"--a wish whose futility only fuels the angry fires. Change is coming. Slowly but surely. And that may be part of the problem. Not the change itself, but the relative slow pace of its process. 

Ernest Gann, a brilliant writer whose memoir Fate is the Hunter paints a gripping picture of the early, dangerous years of airline flying, talks about the difference between fright and fear. Fright, he says, is a sudden emotion that is actually useful because it sends adrenaline through the body and focuses the mind on fixing whatever caused the fright, or adapting to the new circumstances. Fear, on the other hand, is an insidious emotion that takes longer to set in but, if allowed to take hold, degrades thinking and performance to the point of disaster. 

Humans, in other words, react better to a sudden change in circumstances than they do to a slow shift that allows them too much time to think, and allows fear to creep in around the edges. And the longer any amorphous fear sits there, the more it grows. Especially if a person feels helpless to do anything about it. 

Several researchers and business consultants say the same thing. Dr. Mark Feldman (who wrote Five Frogs on a Log) and Alan Deutschman (who wrote Change or Die) both conclude in their books that quick change, even if brutal, is far more successful in the long run than slow change. A slow pace gives people time to feel scared about the change, and to grow correspondingly more resistant to the process. 

Which is to say, if the health care system had just changed one day, we might complain, but we'd adapt. (Same with the country's demographics or economic standing in the world.) But one of the problems with a participatory, democratic process is that it's slow. And that gives fear time to gain a foothold ... and even hijack any rational thought or discussion. 

So what do we do about that? Unfortunately, the process isn't likely to speed up, especially now. And when people get really afraid, they often stop listening altogether. But perhaps President Obama would do well to dust off FDR's famous "we have nothing to fear but fear itself," speech and give it an updated spin. Because the truth is, we adapt to change better than we imagine we will, when it finally comes. It's our fear of it that's debilitating. I've often said that the best antidote to fear is knowledge; we cease to fear things we know and understand well. But on that long, hard road to knowledge, a little inspiration never hurts.

(Photo: Flickr User Rob Stemple)