Sunday’s Wisdom #432: Fear is Fear

“Each person bears a fear which is special to him. One man fears a close space and another man fears drowning; each laughs at the other and calls him stupid. Thus fear is only a preference, to be counted the same as the preference for one woman or another, or mutton for pig, or cabbage for onion. We say, fear is fear.”
– Herger, Eaters of the Dead
By Michael Crichton

Herger says this to the story’s narrator, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, as Ahmad finds himself facing a particular fear of his own, one which I personally share: heights. For the mission they are undertaking, they need to scale down a substantial cliff, and Ahmad shares his fear that he will die, to which his comrades give support and comfort. Their leader says that he will only die if he lets go of the rope, which only a fool would do, and Ahmad is no fool. Herger adds on to this with these words, and they do Ahmad much good, such that he is able to face his fear – albeit praising his god the entire way down – and from then on he is able to face other ways of potentially dying, such as drowning, hypothermia, and battling savage primitives, with remarkably little fear of it.

I find myself thinking much about this quote, as it strikes a certain chord in me. The truth of it is that everyone is afraid of something. That’s just part of the human experience. Close spaces, darkness, loud noises, water, fire, heights, snakes, spiders, dogs, other people, the list is endless.

There is never any shortage of things to fear, though we do not always understand each others’ fears.

Once while I was living with my mother’s aunt, I had to take our dogs, very small and fluffy and adorable, outside for awhile, whilst she was visited by a pair of ladies, one of whom had an overwhelming fear of dogs. That seemed very sad to me, that one would look on a loving, lap-sized ball of fluff, and be unable to not be afraid. I could not dismiss her fear, of course, no matter how unreasonable I found it, because I, too, have been unreasonably clutched by fear, merely of a different type.

I remember, at a job I once worked, there was a particular room which had a wall that could open out and become like a balcony, overlooking an auditorium below. We had to close that wall as part of our tasks at the time, which required two people, one on either side of the wall, inserting keys and holding them in the proper position at the same time, for however long it took to wall to slide shut. I volunteered to take the outer side of the wall, we completed the task, and then I just had to walk along the narrow space, which had a railing, to reach the door that would let be back to the other side, to rejoin my coworkers.

While I was walking that modest distance, I found myself quite suddenly and involuntarily afraid. My heart was beating faster, my head was spinning, my breathing was becoming fevered, and my good sense was leaving me, giving way to a horrible panic. It was as if I were possessed by visions of falling – which was impossible, given the railing – and getting seriously hurt. That the floor would suddenly open beneath me, or tilt over and send me spilling over the rail, or any number of highly unlikely things ran over my brain like a tsunami. I might well have fallen to my knees and remained there, sobbing, such was my fear, and it was only my drive to remove myself from this circumstance which I had so unwittingly put myself in which propelled me to keep going until I achieved the door through which was deliverance from my present terror.

There was no logic to it at all, as is so often the case with fear, but still, I was seized by it. Even now, merely recalling this memory well enough to speak on it threatens my vision to grow blurry with tears.

But I do not fear fire so much, despite how agonizing it is for our flesh to burn. Neither do I fear drowning, despite how much we need the air to survive. And I do not fear dogs at all, despite knowing quite well that it hurts to get bitten or scratched. But there are those who do fear such, and for them I can have only the greatest sympathy. It does not say anything of their character, just as my fear of heights says nothing about mine. It’s simply what each of us fears, that’s all.

Exactly what it is we fear is irrelevant. Fear is fear.

Similarly, courage is courage, no matter what it is we are facing. And faith is faith, as we face our fears, and overcome them. And the friends who support us through such are a treasure beyond accounting.

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