Fear is a pervasive and powerful phenomenon. Fear may be rational. There are good reasons to fear a real danger, alerting us to act cautiously. But even here, the extent of our fear is not predetermined or necessary. It depends on our evaluation of the probability that a danger will be activated, and of the severity of its results. Fear often exaggerates these probabilities and severities. The worst case scenario is often nothing like as bad as our fear suggests, and the likely outcome is in reality very much better.
Fear is not necessarily rational, but psychological. Phobias abound, including of opposites, demonstrating their ultimate irrationality. Claustrophobia is fear of closed spaces, agoraphobia is fear of open spaces. Fear of the dark is common. Internet sources list over 500 classified phobias. These are considered as ‘anxiety disorders’. Their commonality does challenge the Enlightenment view of humanity. Reason does not always rule supreme. Fear has some physical genesis – we can almost physically feel the surge of adrenaline which causes the familiar ‘fright or flight’ reaction – but the trigger is psychological.
Fear can be self-fulfilling. My music teacher at school irrationally feared a brain tumour, and later died of one. My father similarly irrationally feared, and later suffered, a heart attack. Fear is a tool. By playing on people’s fears, by arousing those fears through threat, tyrants have controlled individuals and whole societies. This common process, which can happen at the trivial level too, is fundamentally evil. It is why the psalmist claims ‘I will fear no evil’. Fear distorts our behaviour, our possibilities and our potential. We often fear what we think people think of us, and so our behaviour becomes artificial and constrained.
We can confront our fears and phobias, and align them closer to reality. Human love is one antidote to fear. ‘Perfect love drives out fear’, writes the Christian apostle John in his epistle. Love does bring security, and it is observable that people who feel loved are less fearful. The secular corrective to fear is the realisation famously expressed in US President Franklin D Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address, that ‘the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself’.