The seduction of fear

Why do we love to feel afraid?  We might think we hate our anxiety, the clenching panic we learned to feel when faced with something new, difficult, challenging – but if that’s true, why are we so reluctant to change?

Partly it seems that our fears are given weight, swelled by an audience we share them with.  Whether that’s because people want to have their own fears confirmed, or because they want to sell us something to make us feel better, it seems that lots of people are telling us we are right to be afraid.

The news and one another echo that fear is an accurate response to a world that is more horrible than good, more dangerous than safe, where the consequences of risk are catastrophic.  Statistics and philosophy are easily marginalized within this framework, because it also presumes suspicion to be more appropriate than trust.

We are told that being afraid is not only right, it can be morally superior.  “I worry because I care”, people say.  Or “I can’t believe you’re not even worried about this”, as if worry was inseparable from love, as if worry was love.  Fear is like a plant, growing pale and leggy in the dark, winding roots in deep around the heart until a parent can say “I’m so terrified that something will happen to them” and mean it.  Something.  Not something bad, but something.  Doubt this?  Say the phrase “anything might happen” to yourself in an excited voice, then in a trembling one, and see how both feel.

Over time, all this suspicion and worry work groove into our habits of thinking and feeling.  Sharing our fears becomes the way we relate to one another, how we prove that we are good parents, good children, good caregivers of one another.  We may not know how to help, but we know how to worry and hell, we’ll do it all the time!

But fear unhinged from reality, fear made habitual, impairs us.  When we’re acting from our worry we fail to see options present themselves, we find rose-tinted glasses swapped for grey.  Worry becomes the language of love, sharing our fear of the world with those we hold most dear.  That fear of “what if” becomes comfortable, comforting to repeat, a rosary of distress.

Fear also comes with a rush, as an excitement.  This is why movies that send your heart racing, fingers over your eyes and a scream stuck in your throat, are called thrillers.  We’re thrilled!  Scary movies used to be called “clutch” films, because that’s what you’d be doing to your date.  Excitement, those lovers hoped, translates.

Perhaps most applicable for playwork is the way that fear makes nuanced conversations about risk impossible, because people have forgotten that risk is good.  Risk is growth.  Without risk there is no triumph, no disaster.  Without experiences of risk, fear becomes a bogey man and master of the darkness.  Without positive experiences of risk, fear goes unaddressed, undisputed, until the fear grows larger and the lived-in life grows smaller.

There are many different words for fear, and some form of fear is behind any play barrier you’d care to mention.  Fear of waste (time, space, money).  Fear of loss, of pain.  Fear of the guilt or sorrow that might come after, fear of sadness and being blamed for sadness.  Fear of appearing ridiculous.  Whatever we call it, this fear is a way of telling ourselves that we’re powerless.  But fear is not, in and of itself, bad.  It is a signpost, showing us what is next for us to work on, so we can turn that cycle around.  Instead of reminding ourselves of our vulnerabilities, our weaknesses, we can practice our strength.  Celebrate our boldness.  Grow audacious, appreciative, alive.


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