When we can achieve calm simply by doing calming things, we’re lucky. If we’re frazzled and tense but we find it possible to regain our peace of mind by taking a deep breath or laughing at a joke or going out for a long walk, then hallelujah. But when it’s more than generalized stress that we’re up against, when it’s specifically fear that disturbs our tranquility – the gnawing menace of fear – we might have to apply more than a gentle, calming technique to find relief. We might have to do something counterintuitive.

Fear is not all bad. It has a bad name, but it also has a purpose. When Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” echoing sentiments expressed by Montaigne, Bacon, and Thoreau, he neglected to mention that we should also fear the complete absence of fear, shouldn’t we?

If we were strolling along the double yellow line of an empty rural highway when a car appeared out of nowhere, rushing towards us with now just ten seconds till impact, then fear would come to the rescue. Fear would make us bolt to the side of the road. Fear – the anticipation of future pain, an anticipation that is itself painful to experience in the present – would be our savior.

But what if a friend were standing beside us, a daredevil who yanked us back to the center of the road and said, “Let’s run toward the car and see what happens.” 

“That’s crazy!” we might shout. “What if the car can’t slow down? What if it hits us? What if it swerves and crashes?” The idea of ignoring our fear would cause more fear.

If fear can be said to have a “design,” then it is designed so we can’t easily control it, can’t effortlessly escape it. The attempt to do so only makes it more intense. Fear is sticky, it’s entrapping, it’s self-magnifying, it commandeers our attention absolutely, so that it can guide us to safety in those circumstances when ignoring a threat for even one second would be perilous. To be of any help to us, fear must have the “authority” in our mind to prevail over distractions and bad influences like our madcap friend.

In dangerous situations, we benefit from the involuntary nature of fear – from the way it’s not optional, not easy to subdue. If we had enough control over our fear that we could calmly disengage from it at our friend’s suggestion and join them in pursuing whatever thrill is to be found in a game of chicken with a Corvette doing eighty miles per hour, that would be a harmful and potentially fatal kind of control to possess.

But the problem with fear is that it feels the same to us, and is similarly commandeering, whether it is rational or not, whether it is well-founded or not, whether it is useful or not. Fear brings the same racing heart, the same goose bumps, the same queasy feeling, the same sweat, the same tension in the neck, and the same psychic fixation, whether we’re afraid of a real sports car rushing toward us, or afraid of imaginary monsters in the bedroom closet. Fear even feels the same, and exerts the same control over our attention, when we’re 99.999% sure that the threat isn’t real and we’re telling ourselves that we have no good reason to be afraid. 

If we were secretly terrified of monsters, we could open the closet, shine a flashlight all around, and notice the complete absence of monsters. But we might also discover that fear doesn’t respond to refutation. True, there are no monsters to be seen right now, and everyone says that monsters don’t exist at all – it’s “childish” to believe in them. But fear can always keep itself alive by peppering us with questions: What if the monsters were hiding when we looked? What if they left the closet to wait somewhere else and they’re planning to return with a vengeance? Even if there’s only a 0.001% chance that monsters exist, we know that improbable things sometimes turn out to be true, and this particular improbable thing would be really, really bad.

As much as fear can save our life in the face of genuine threats, it can also steal our life-energy in the face of bogus ones. The fear we feel regarding monsters can consume our waking attention and disturb our precious sleep with no payback, no reward. When it’s monsters or another imaginary hazard that’s causing our fear, the ability to control that fear would be a blessing that could help us conserve our peace and vitality. As much as we don’t want the option of ignoring our fear when that fear arises because of a real emergency like an onrushing car, we’d benefit from that same capacity to ignore our fear, to subdue it, to escape it when our fear arises because of a false, but still draining idea like a giant three-horned bear-demon that’s supposedly lurking among the trousers and pressed shirts.

An analogy to pain is informative here. It’s good that we feel pain. Those rare people who possess a congenital insensitivity to pain don’t live very long: they might calmly bite off their tongue, or break a bone in good cheer, or suffer a burn that doesn’t hurt although it is still bad for them. But those of us who do feel pain often feel more than we’d like, more than we can benefit from. A common headache might alert us to an issue that needs medical attention but more likely the pain is useless as an indicator of anything significant: it drains our energy and keeps us from concentrating and causes endless annoyance without providing any benefit whatsoever. And that’s why there are fortunes to be made in producing substances that deaden pain. As essential as pain is to life, the appeal of painkillers is so great that countless lives have been upended or lost to the addiction that the strongest painkillers create. And if there’s one substance we might expect to receive at the very end of our lives, it might be morphine.

Like physical pain, fear is helpful and harmful, useful and unnecessary. The question is: how can we exert greater control over our fear in those specific situations where we’re absolutely sure that our fear is harmful and unnecessary, and yet we still feel it?

To exert greater control over our fear, we need to look closer at its structure. Fear often has three components. First, there’s the awareness of a possible threat. Second, there’s the expectation of pain or suffering that could come from ignoring the threat. Third, there’s a forecast about how we’d feel about ourselves if we ignored the threat: what would ignoring this threat say about our character, and what would it mean regarding our culpability in any ensuing disaster? For example, if I’m feeling afraid of monsters, then I’m thinking first, that monsters are dangerous; second, that if I ignore monsters, I could suffer; and third, that if I get hurt by monsters because I ignored them, I’d have been foolish, reckless, stupid to turn my attention away, and I’d be culpable for my suffering.

From that third point, we can see that what locks us into our fear is our desire to be responsible, to be conscientious, to be attentive to threats, to do what is right and necessary to avoid those threats or at least not to let them take us by surprise. These thoughts are the infrastructure that keeps our fear in place. We’d like to subdue or overcome our fear, but we remain fearful because we’re committed to avoiding rashness, gullibility, recklessness, insanity. We might try to be brave and ignore the monsters, we might repeat the assertion that they don’t exist, we might try to “play chicken” with the threat, but still we think, “This is not a game! I’m going to get hurt if I ignore this danger. Something bad is going to happen, and I’ll be at fault if I don’t stay vigilant.”

I have an example from my own life: I’ll get ready to leave my house, sometimes – my shoelaces are tied, my jacket is on, and I’m almost out the front door, but then I remember I should check the stove. So I go back inside, hurrying to the kitchen. At this point, my fear of a gas leak is rational, because I have left a burner on before – just once or twice in twenty years – but it’s better to be safe.

But once in a while, I’ll finish checking the stove, make my way back out the door, step onto the sidewalk, and then wonder if I overlooked something. Can I remember how the stove appeared with all the knobs in the off position? Although I was just back in the kitchen looking at those knobs, I can’t clearly recall what I saw because I had been rushing, I had been distracted. Is it possible that I had been so absentminded in my checking that I might have missed a knob that was slightly ajar? A gas leak could be really bad, so maybe I should go back to check a second time and put the fear out of my mind? 

At this point, my fear has crossed a line into the realm of the irrational, the unhelpful, the obsessive, and I know that. What are the chances that I would go all the way back to the kitchen to check the stove and not notice an evident problem? But the fear feels the same as it did the first time. Even if there’s only the faintest, most miniscule chance that a burner is on and I didn’t notice it, I can imagine that possibility quite vividly, and I really don’t want my house to catch on fire. If I ignore my fear and give up my opportunity to prevent a disaster, and if that disaster does come to pass, I’ll be sorry for the rest of my life.

So what’s keeping me bound to my fear in this situation? It’s an errant commitment to responsibility, prudence, and caution. It’s a desire to avoid foolishness, gone awry. It’s a secondary fear of regret, echoing through my mind in such an annoying way that I’ll do anything to put an end to it: what’s the harm of taking this small extra precaution to put myself at ease? 

Well, the harm of catering to any irrational fear is that we might become dependent on redundant reassurances that serve no purpose and thereby set us up for more fear when we don’t receive them. So how can a person escape from an irrational fear that persists even when they know it is irrational? One strategy is to try to dismantle the infrastructure that keeps our attention bound to the threat in the first place. If it feels reckless or crazy to ignore a nagging possibility of disaster, then we can try to give ourselves permission to feel reckless and crazy. We can try to become more comfortable with that feeling of carelessness, irresponsibility, and foolishness. If we think that disengaging from our fear would make us culpable for a bad outcome, then we can declare that we’re not in charge any more: we’ve already done what we can for caution’s sake, and now the outcome is up to fate.

In my case this would mean that if I feel I’m being negligent by not checking the stove a second time, I should not interpret this feeling as a signal that urges me to go back inside. I should instead take it as a reminder to leave my house and go forward with my day. If I feel I’m making a risky, imprudent choice, I should treat this feeling as a good thing, because it means I’m confronting a fear that’s not serving me.

The idea is to treat the feeling of “I’m being reckless” not as a red light, but as a green one; not as a warning, but as a positive signal. But recklessness is the quality that makes people gamble and have unprotected sex with strangers and play Russian roulette. Recklessness could give you a bankruptcy, an STD, and a bullet in your head. How can recklessness be a virtue?

Of course it’s a question of context. The idea is to cultivate a tolerance for the feeling of recklessness, and to apply this tolerance in a deliberate way, when we’ve surveyed the situation and concluded that we’re not under any grave threat, but we’re still afraid. Now the question is how can we channel our reckless side within that specific context, as a way of loosening fear’s grip.

It’s informative to think of times in our lives when recklessness or rule-breaking or a bit of irresponsibility led to a positive outcome. What is something irresponsible we might have done when the stakes were low and we didn’t suffer, or cause, any harm?

Maybe we stayed up past our bedtime. Maybe we had another drink. Maybe we flirted with someone who was “off limits.” Maybe we spoke up or talked back in a situation where decorum was called for, risking confrontation. Recklessness might have given us a good experience, or helped us meet the love of our life, or allowed us to overcome a barrier in communication. In retrospect, our recklessness seems justified, but at the time, before the positive outcome was known, our behavior felt wrong, dangerous, risky in the truest sense.

When we behave recklessly, it’s often because we want to gain some reward in the moment – excitement, attention, pleasure – more than we care about following rules. But if we’re being reckless as a way of escaping fear – if our way of being “irresponsible” is simply to turn our focus away from a perceived threat and allow ourselves to think of other things – what are we hoping to gain? In this case, we’re being reckless not for pleasure, but for peace; not for excitement, but for calm; not for novelty, but for serenity.

To use recklessness as an antidote to fear we should be clear about what we want, and how much we value it. Inner peace should be something we prize so much that we’re willing to feel reckless and irresponsible to get it. Calm should be important enough to us that we’d take an attitude that feels “insane” or “crazy” in order to find it.

When relaxing actions, like taking a deep breath or going for a walk or attempting some positive self-talk aren’t enough to assuage a nagging fear, we might need to take more aggressive steps, like breaking rules, to get the calm we want. But we needn’t break any public rules or laws. We simply need to break the mental “rules” that tell us where we should place our attention. We simply need to break our inner “laws,” the laws that fear creates within us, the laws that force us to stay focused on a perceived threat. And to really do this, to really pull our attention away from what we fear, we need to get comfortable with the reckless feeling that freedom brings. ■

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