“The thing in the world I am most afraid of is fear,” wrote Michel de Montaigne. Several centuries later Franklin Roosevelt rephrased the sentiment as: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
They lived in dangerous times. Montaigne’s contemporaries were lucky to reach the age of five-and-thirty. Roosevelt was speaking from the depths of the Great Depression. Fear, one could argue, was a legitimate emotion. Yet they diagnosed it as a greater threat than any material problems. Roosevelt condemned the, “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” While Montaigne observes that, “many people… impatient of the perpetual alarms of fear, have hanged or drowned themselves, or dashed themselves to pieces, [giving] us sufficiently to understand that fear is more importunate and insupportable than death itself.” Look at it like that and fear diminishes from a bona fide ghost into a Scooby Doo baddy shaking his limbs beneath a threadbare white sheet. So why do we still hide under the bed when fear skulks into the room?
It is nothing to do with logic. No physical or psychological threat accounts for me staring at my laptop as if it were an oncoming lorry, fingers frozen over the keyboard, brow crumpled like a used dishcloth. Certainly nothing excuses my vain, self-conscious complaints to sympathetic friends. Fear is as insidious as rising damp though, oozing through the nooks of my brain, turning my thoughts clammy and sour. What scares me? To quote a letter Hunter S Thompson wrote during a pre-Hell’s Angels financial and personal funk:
4) Worry that I may not be as strong as I think I am and thereby compromise with dull reality and convince myself my weakness is a sign of ‘maturity’
5) Worry that I may never run across anyone whom I think is ‘right’ enough to fall in love with, or perhaps I should say ‘be happy with.’
I’d add failure, cold, disappointing people I love, and the dark. Even by my narcissistic standards it’s a pretty unimpressive list but still the mould creeps across the walls of my mind. My options are: do nothing and wait for rigour mortis to set in; whinge until someone throws something at me and I move to duck; denial; or find a way to cope.
Shameful as it is to admit, D is the least appealing option. Fear is perversely satisfying. From the right angle I can mistake headlights for a spotlight. But I don’t plan to end up beneath a truck-tyre. I need to do better. Unfortunately, when the mean reds hit (defined by Miss Golightly as when “you’re scared and don’t know what you’re scared of”) common sense goes out the window. Or at least climbs onto the sill and does a little shuffle, waiting for me to remonstrate with it to please, stick around. The best thing to do at that point is to shrug and say: go on then, jump. Real common sense is survival-type selfish. If I were in actual danger adrenaline would kick in and I’d do something. Only petty fears freeze me. The quickest cure is physical. “It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag,” Joan Didion writes in her essay On Self-Respect. “The psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a Food Fair bag.” Jogging around the block or doing star jumps helps but I don’t want to just shoo the ghost away, I want to grab that tatty sheet and rip it off.
This means tackling the paper tiger of other people’s expectations. I am petrified at the thought of letting people down. A friend told me, “You know, other people are just like you.” What he meant was: other people are just as insecure, worried, and self-obsessed. You’re not special. It was the verbal equivalent of a Food Fair bag over the head. That’s only half of it though. People are often needy and nervy (however composed they seem) but they are also generous. My friends categorically do not give a fuck about my diminishing bank balance, unfinished novel, or botched love affairs. I sometimes kid myself they do because I do, but that misstates the case. They’re my friends. None of them, thank god, aspire to be substitute parents or the voice of my conscience.
The particular applies to the general at this point: the best way to alleviate fear is to jettison expectations. Life is hectic. Painting targets on each other is a waste of time. Thoreau wrote: “Let everyone mind his own business and endeavour to be what he was made.” Busyness keeps fear at bay, forestalls the luxury being judgemental, and solves the problem of self-serving anxiety by giving us a sense of purpose. As Roosevelt said: “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort…. our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves, to our fellow men.”