When we think about fear, we usually assume it’s something we’d be better off without. But for the last few years, thanks to my son, who recently turned 4, I’ve been getting a real education in the relative merits of fear. It’s made me realize that this emotion (or perhaps it is an instinct?) has a necessary and appropriate place in our lives.
I won’t say that this education has been easy. Honestly, for much of the first few years of my son’s life, his near-total lack of fear scared the crap out of me. From the time he learned to walk, I learned that he could be counted on to approach all physical challenges with an enthusiasm bordering on recklessness.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched him spontaneously climb up, dive into or leap over something in a way I considered, at best, ill-advised. Observing my kid’s full-throttle antics, part of me has often marveled at his indomitable spirit, and part of me has winced, wanting to cover my eyes.
I dread seeing my child hurt himself, of course, and in certain instances, I’ve had to intervene to make sure he didn’t do any serious damage. In those moments, I knew I needed to trust my own parental sense of fear about what was truly dangerous. In less dire situations, though, I’ve held my breath and hoped for the best, not wanting to unnecessarily squelch his bold, exploratory nature or rob him of the opportunity to discover his own limits.
Over the past year or so, thankfully, I’ve started breathing a little easier. While my son is still quite the daredevil, I can see that he’s begun developing some situationally appropriate fear of his own. Maybe it’s just the common sense that comes with a certain amount of trial and error. Maybe it’s an evolving awareness of the laws of physics. Whatever the reason, I’ve recently seen him exhibit just enough hesitancy about certain potentially risky situations that I no longer have to wonder whether he will survive his next visit to the playground intact.
What my son is grasping is something that I think all of us eventually learn — or fail to learn at great expense. Namely, that honoring and adapting our sense of fear based on our real-life experiences is essential to our long-term survival.
Consider the example of prey animals and predators. Prey animals, like horses and rabbits, operate almost entirely out of “fear intelligence.” They’ve learned over the course of their evolution what they need to be afraid of (primarily predators, like lions, tigers and other creatures that might want to eat them), and how to avoid those threats as assiduously as possible. As a result, even in the face of considerable danger, their kind have survived quite well.
Predators, on the other hand, have an evolutionary history that inclines them to be fearless. For eons, they have been the hunters, not the hunted — the feared, not the fearful. They’re always on the lookout for opportunities, not threats. And thus, despite pronounced advantages in the context of their natural environments, over time they have fared far less well than prey animals in the face of one unprecedented threat: human encroachment. As a result, unfortunately, many of them are now considered endangered species.
My point is not that we’d all be better off functioning as skittish prey animals, constantly scanning the horizon for danger and running as fast as we can from every perceived threat. On the contrary, we humans occupy a middle place in the evolutionary history of prey-predator relations, and we tend to do best when we balance courageous and calculated risks with practical self-preservation strategies. We don’t do well at all, though, when we allow manufactured, worst-case-scenario fears and what-if anxieties to get the best of us.
Ultimately, each of us has to choose our battles. We have to know when to stand our ground, when to pause, when to pounce, when to turn and walk (or run) away. It is by consciously noticing and taking stock of our fears, by learning to accurately discern real threats from paper tigers, that we stand the best chance not only of surviving but also of succeeding to the fullest extent of our personal potential.
True courage, as many wise teachers have noted, is not some superhuman immunity to fear. Rather, it is a willingness to acknowledge our fears, and then make conscious, high-integrity choices about how we respond to them.
Whether we’re 4 or 94, that’s a skill it is never too late for any of us to learn.