Scarecrow, n. - that which exists solely to evoke fear. There are so many scarecrows: global - the end of the world as we know it. societal - the end of the tribe as we know it. individual - scarecrows of the soul. Scarecrows lead us into the worst versions of ourselves: The one who's stressed, and mean because of it. The one who imagines conspiracy around every corner. The one who sees threat in every change & in every difference. The one who wants an orderly world of people just like themselves - familiar, cozy, and lacking surprises. Scarecrows even march us off to war, and war should be the scariest state imaginable -- death doled out on a random basis. War should be the scariest, but terrible certainties spur less fear than any old uncertainty.
Tag Archives: fear
BOOK REVIEW: Laches by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This early Socratic dialogue asks, “what is courage?” Two older gentlemen, Lysimachus and Melesias, regret that they never had their mettle tested. The seniors ask two younger men who’ve served in battle, Nicias and Laches, whether the elder men should have their sons learn the art of fighting in armor to build courage in the young men. Nicias and Laches suggest that Socrates, who showed great valor in battle, should be asked the question.
Lysimachus believes this to be a good idea because then they have a tie-breaker if the two disagree. However, Socrates leads Lysimachus to understand the folly of this approach. What if the dissenter is the only one who truly knows what courage is and how it can be pursued? Socrates admits he has no great expertise in the matter, but is willing to help determine whether Nicias or Laches is more qualified to answer the question.
Laches goes first and defines courageousness as standing one’s ground in battle. However, under Socrates’ interrogation, Laches has to admit that a man who stays in place foolishly can’t be thought more courageous than one who fights in strategic retreat.
Nicias presents a definition that is more nuanced. Nicias says that courage is knowledge of what is fearful and what is hopeful. One might expect this to please Socrates because the philosopher famously believed that ethical behavior sprang from knowing – i.e. if a man knew what was right, he would act virtuously. However, as Socrates questions Nicias a couple issues become apparent. First, Nicias admits that the courageous person must know what is fearful and hopeful in the future as well as present (and who knows that?) Second, Nicias can’t really differentiate courage from virtue as a whole.
This brief dialogue is short, focused, and well worth reading.
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POEM: Rainy Day Rambling Brain
Sitting on the balcony, watching the rain, I see spreading concentric rings ping into each other in the puddles below. The expanding rings of big drops swamp those of the smaller droplets. More evenly-matched pairings of waves becomes something new — not pure chaos, but much more complex than either of their parents. The analogy to the workings of my mind is intuitively felt — if not intellectually understood.
A pigeon struts along the ledge of concrete slab on a building under construction next door. The slab intends to become a balcony like the one on which I’m sitting.
I want to think that only a winged creature could walk so confidently on that ledge, but I remember reading that skyscraper construction companies in New York City hired lots of men from a certain Western tribe known for fearlessness vis-à-vis heights.
But were they fearless?
Sooner or later, fearless creatures become careless creatures — at least among humans.
The chipmunk bobbing at the twiggy, distal end of a branch seems fearless to me, but I also feel that I’d see a lot more sidewalk-splattered chipmunks if the little beast didn’t have some kind of feeling about the precariousness of its situation. Maybe, I anthropomorphize.
And one puddle reaches a tipping point, pouring into another…
POEM: Fear & the Snowflake [Day 24 NaPoMo: Confessional]
Reading about Audie Murphy vaccinated me with perspective.
Maybe you heard of him as a star of silver screen cowboy cinema.
He also received the Medal of Honor for single-handedly taking on a unit of Nazis from atop a burning tank after sending his men to the concealment of a forest.
But he was also known for stage fright and intense shyness. Once, asked to give a speech, he said he’d rather storm a Nazi machinegun position, and he should know.
That seems like a strange mix of fearlessness and fearfulness, but isn’t everyone’s?
I’m less afraid of giving a speech than I am of having to mingle with strangers at a cocktail party.
I’m less afraid of being punched in the face than I am of misspeaking. (Sadly, I have enough experience with both to say as much.)
I’m less afraid of dying than I am of being so incapacitated that I don’t have the option to wheel, crawl, or hobble my failing body off a cliff.
I’ve been found fearless by people mortified by hand-standing or petting a strange dog.
I’ve been considered cowardly by masters of cocktail party mingling.
And they are both correct.
And they are both so wrong.
POEM: Fear in Motion [Day 20 NaPoMo: Sestina]
[A sestina consists of six-and-a-half six-line stanzas. It generally follows a metrical pattern, though there is no consensus agreement on a particular meter. (In English language poetry, pentameter is common but not universal.) Sestinas don’t rhyme, but instead use a pattern of repetition of the end-words. So the last word of each line in the first stanza becomes the last word of a line in the other stanzas, but in a rotated order. In this poem, I’ll be using the most common rotational scheme. The envoi (i.e. the three line stanza at the end) must use all six end-line words — three are set as end words and the other three can appear anywhere in its designated line.]
The fluid dynamics of fear:
spreads like fire, but rolls like water.
Through contact or its lack, it creeps.
There’s fear of what is and what’s not —
fear of loud noises and the dark,
of nightmares that seep into day.
Some feel it at the end of day —
that looming specter, rising fear,
as if strength were leached by the dark —
vigor melting; salt to water.
But it’s what lies unseen, and not
the darkness, that gives one the creeps:
-the monster men and lurking creeps
-not today, but some future day
-that those you love might love you not
-the stealth beasts you don’t know to fear
-whether your roof will shed water,
-and your lamp banish all the dark.
When you hear a sound in the dark
and up your spine a tingle creeps,
like the rill of flowing water.
But it can’t hold ’til break of day.
It’s too fluid a form of fear.
It dives where your conscious cannot.
Go. Seek those cloaked fears but you’ll not
see more than shadow in the dark.
Fear is shadow and shadow, fear.
It’s mind myths that give one the creeps;
fears can’t survive the light of day.
They flow and are still — like water.
In my dream, I’m in flood water,
near a plane the pilot could not
save. Hoping to float ’til the day
arrives to free me from the dark.
But I hear something swims or creeps.
It must. Unseen motion is fear.
Treading water in seas so dark
that not a soul can see what creeps
from timeless void to day of fear.
BOOK REVIEW: Anxious Joseph E. LeDoux
Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety by Joseph E. LeDoux
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book examines the neuroscience of anxiety, though psychology also makes a prominent appearance in the discussion – particularly toward the end of the book. It’s written by one of the top researchers in the field emotional neuroscience, though LeDoux discusses the work of other labs, comparing and contrasting their work with that of his own, and thus giving an idea of the fault lines in the field. (By that I mean more the questions that remain in dispute, not who hates whom.)
The book addresses a number of key questions such as: How does brain activity result in the emotional experience? How do conscious emotional feelings relate to and interact with non-conscious responses to threatening stimuli? Is the human emotional experience a hand over from animal ancestors or a uniquely human condition? How effective are drug-based versus psycho-therapeutic approaches to anxiety disorders? What has been learned about extinguishing anxious responses to threatening stimuli? Needless to say, this book doesn’t answer all the questions, as many of the questions – particularly those regarding consciousness – remain to be definitively answered. It does offer a great overview of the state of understanding in the present day.
I won’t present a chapter by chapter outline, but rather a look at the book’s general flow. LeDoux starts by laying groundwork, and in this case that means clarifying the relationship between fear and anxiety. While the former often captures the imagination because of its dramatic and traumatic causes, the latter is more of a concern as its grinding long-term effects can cripple the immune system and have other adverse effects. The early chapters also discuss what has been learned about how emotions are formed in the brain and how views about this have changed over time.
Chapter five is where LeDoux explores the relationship between animal emotionality and human emotional life. This is an important subject as it relates to the question of whether research with animals can teach us anything relevant to the human experience. As it has become progressively more difficult to conduct any research that causes human subjects any emotional distress, this question may be instrumental to making progress in the field.
Chapters six through eight are interconnected by the question of consciousness. Chapter six discusses the nature of consciousness, which remains one of the most slippery and least understood concepts in the natural world. Chapter seven delves into memory and consciousness – an important topic as anxious responses can be viewed as learned responses and this begs the question of unlearning. Memory will later be revisited with respect to the question of whether it’s possible to erase painful or anxiety-inducing memories (ala, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) – based on work that came out of LeDoux’s lab – and, if so, whether it’s a good idea. The final consciousness chapter gets into consciousness of emotion, specifically (as opposed to all the other thoughts and feelings of which one can be consciously aware.)
The last three chapters are also interconnected by movement from the question of how is anxiety felt / experienced to the question of what one can do about it. The first of these chapters discusses an epidemic of anxiety (entitled “40 million anxious minds,” and that refers to the US alone) and what has been learned about drug-based treatments. As it happens, drug-based treatments haven’t proven reliably effective, leaving plenty of room for other approaches, e.g. psychotherapy. This fact is the basis for the last two chapters that discuss different approaches to extinguishing the connection between a stimulus and the anxious response. The first of theses chapters (ch.10) is more general and the last chapter dives deep into the research that has been done in recent years. Chapter 11 also offers a nice discussion of how breath exercises and meditation can be instrumental in reducing the adverse effects of anxiety.
As would be expected of a scholarly work, the book is heavily annotated, has an extensive bibliography, and uses a great number of graphics in an attempt to lend clarity.
I would put this work in the same category as the works of Robert Sapolsky. That is to say, it resides in a space between the level of detail usually seen in works of popular science and that which is seen in textbooks for specialists. That is to say, LeDoux does get into some detail and this isn’t a light read for anyone without a heavy-duty background in biological sciences. That said, if you have a basic scientific literacy (and / or don’t care too much about the fine detail), it’s by no means impossibly dense. When it’s not diving into the various brain regions and neuronal pathways, it’s quite readable.
I’d recommend this book for anyone who is interested in a detailed look at how anxiety arises and how it can be quelled.
POEM: Fog Monster
fog followed us down the valley
in a relentless glacial flow
ahead lea, aft a soft white wall
lost, the mountainous tableau
who is chased by a dragging cloud
pulled over the land like a cover?
it’s not mustard gas creeping in
just water drops caught mid hover
well, i can’t speak for one and all
but i found my pace did quicken
when sound roams free, but sight ‘s restrained
the old nerves tend to kick in
BOOK REVIEW: The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley
The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why by Amanda Ripley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Ripley investigates a range of disasters and tragedies – natural and man-made – with an eye toward her sub-titular question of who survives and why. Of course, in the process she answers the [often more interesting] converse question of who dies and why? By that I’m specifically referring to those who die while facing the same situations as survivors. i.e. Who dies having had the capacity to survive? Obviously, some people fail to survive because they face a fundamentally unsurvivable event (e.g. a plane explodes in mid-air with said person in it), but a surprising number die who could have walked to safety if they’d have managed to get moving – and some die because they play out a mental script that makes no sense contextually, e.g. trying to get a carry-on out of the overhead compartment as though one is at the gate at Heathrow Airport when in fact one is sinking into the ocean while the crashed airliner one is in is being buffeted by ocean waves.
Over the course of eight chapters, an introduction, a conclusion, and ancillary material, the author presents cases involving airplane crashes, tsunami, hurricanes, police shootings, hostage situations, fires, stampedes (of humans by humans), and even touches on the psychology of tragedies of a personal [rather than mass] nature (e.g. sexual assault.) A particular emphasis is given to events that the reader will likely be familiar such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, but the book also opens up the reader to events they may have scarcely heard of from the many crushing deaths in Mecca during recent Hajj pilgrimages to the Halifax harbor incident of 1917. Along the way, the reader hears from survivors, heroes, and a wide-range of experts on subjects such as gunfights, risk perception, evacuation dynamics, the physics of crowds, evolutionary psychology, and emotional resilience.
After an introduction that sets the context for the book, the first chapter discusses one of the most salient features of whether ones lives or dies, delay. The case of the evacuation of the World Trade Center (WTC) on September 11, 2001 is used to examine why some people loiter about while others are johnny on the spot to hit the road. The WTC on 9/11 makes an interesting case because there were certainly people who died who could have survived if they’d had better knowledge or training. However, at the same time, it could have also been vastly worse if some of the people didn’t have the training they did (famously, a huge WTC tenant, Morgan Stanley, had a man in charge of emergency procedures, Rick Rescorla, whose persistent drills no doubt saved many lives [though he did not survive, himself.])
Chapter two discusses risk, and the weird way in which human beings perceive and respond to uncertainty. For example, the author describes Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect Theory, which showed that a person responds to risk much differently if there’s a possibility of losing something rather than only of making gains. (Prior to work of these two social scientists, the prevailing view was that humans were rational actors, i.e. a $100 is a $100.) Prospect theory confirmed that anxiety mattered, and people didn’t just use their clockwork frontal cortex to calculate and compare expected values. (This may seem self-evident, but it began the process of up-ending the precise and predictable rational actor model from classical economics.)
Chapter three is entitled “fear” and it discusses that emotion and the various behaviors (and lack of behavior) that goes hand-in-hand with it, including: distortion of the experience of time, tunnel vision, and self-talk. (Panic and paralysis behaviors are each given their own chapter later in the book.) This chapter presented a fascinating discussion with a man who may have been involved in more shoot outs than any other police officer (the officer, no doubt, having a valuable perspective on how to respond in fearful situations.)
Chapter four is about the personality traits that link to resilience and the survivor personality. There is a fascinating discussion with an undercover agent in Israel, a man who faced a number of situations in which he had to coolly make a life-or-death decision in the way that most of us only experience in Hollywood movies. It should be pointed out that while we all admire such people when they save the day, the personality traits they display aren’t necessarily ones that we find desirable in daily life. Chapter five is entitled “groupthink” and it discusses the role that social dynamics play in survival, which is often considerable. Some survivors are people who would’ve perished if left to their own devices – i.e. if a more resilient stranger hadn’t taken them by the hand or shouted in their face.
The last three chapters discuss three relatively common behaviors that occur in the decisive moment of a tragedy. Chapter six discusses panic behavior. As it happens, there are some types of tragedies in which panic is almost unheard of and others in which it is nearly ubiquitous. Personality does play a role. Just as some people have personality traits that make them more resilient, others have traits that make them more likely to panic. However, researchers also found that there are characteristics – e.g. people feeling trapped but as if there’s a glimmer of hope of escape. [People who know they are unequivocally doomed are often surprisingly calm.] The chapter also offers some useful insights into how crowds kill people that may be useful for those who find themselves in massive crowds like those seen during pilgrimages or at any number of festivals in India (where human stampede deaths are disturbingly common.)
Chapter seven is about “paralysis” behavior. Readers may be familiar that there’s been a tendency of experts to add either one or two new “F’s” to the phrase “fight or flight” – such as “freeze” or “fright” – to describe other extremely common responses to severe sympathetic nervous system engagement. It’s common to dismiss such behavior as that of cowardly or milquetoast people, but the reality is more complex. On the evolutionary timescale, there was one tragedy that counted for an overwhelming percentage of such dire events — being in the jaws of an apex predator. It turns out that if a grizzly bear or lioness is atop you, freezing isn’t a bad strategy. You aren’t going to pop up and out run a tiger or defeat it in unarmed combat, your only hope may be to make it think you are a diseased carcass – i.e. shit yourself and lie limply. One has to train alternative behaviors; otherwise, the body does what is evolutionarily programmed into its genetic code.
The last chapter is on heroic acts and why some people engage in them when most people don’t. (Consider the people in the Titanic lifeboats who listened to people struggle and drown for fear that their [almost empty] boat would be swamped with clawing victims. Or, the case of Catherine Genovese who was screaming bloody murder for half-an-hour while being raped and stabbed to death while none of the 40-ish witnesses so much as called the cops.) As with the question of what makes a survivor, the answer to what makes a hero is a mixed bag. While we tend to idolize people who engage in heroic actions, the evidence suggests that the image of pure beneficence – lacking all self-interest – may be mythical. Many a hero is as much responding with a combination of subconscious mind and genetic programming as is the individual who burns to death 100 feet from an unlocked exit – just to vastly greater adoration.
I found this book to be fascinating. There are many books on this topic, but I think the author did an excellent job of choosing cases and experts to produce an interesting and informative read — even for a reader for whom this literature is not new.
5 Tools to Hulk Your Way Out of Your Comfort Zone
5.) Take a class / Join a group: While I’m partial to yoga and the martial arts, the class could be in any area that presents a challenge. However, there are a couple of advantages to the aforementioned two (to which I would add dance.)
First, these disciplines train one to be expressive with one’s body and to move more freely. This can do wonders for confidence. People store tension in their bodies without even realizing it. Many have postural problems that effect confidence and self-perception. A 2014 New Zealand study found that posture can have a strong effect on emotional state.
Second, no matter who one is, one will be challenged by new approaches to movement. The average person has great difficulty learning to use their body in new ways. One needs to drill in movements conscientiously to achieve competency. Our conscious mind, frequently gets in the way. Even the most athletic and coordinated people will need to work it, failing repeatedly until they succeed.
Why is the challenge so important? Many people go through life afraid to fail, but far too few fear never failing. Sounds idiotic. Nobody wants to fail. I have some hard news. If you’ve never failed, it’s not because you are unmitigatedly awesome in all things. It’s because you’re living in a box and cherry-picking life experiences that feel unthreatening.
If, like me, you’re an introvert, this approach offers the additional benefit of social interaction that is of a predictable / schedulable nature. One needs the interaction, but the problem comes when one has social interactions and / or sensory stimulation that go on too long and in an unpredictable fashion. Therefore, being able to schedule such time is a good way to go about being a more productive introvert.
4.) Writing / Visualization: These two approaches to mentally rehearsing allow one to keep one’s inner critic in check. The problem with simply day-dreaming it is that critic can chirp in without being that cognizant of it.
In visualization, one quiets the mind and can then non-judgmentally acknowledge and dismiss the negative thoughts. In writing–be it as a journal entry, poem, or a story–we may not notice the nagging voice of the inner critic on the first draft, but you can take note of it and undo it in rewrites.
3.) Travel / Living abroad: I should point out that not just any old travel will have the desired effect. Many people plan their travel with the objective of being comfortable at the fore. They eat at places that serve the same kind of food as at home. They stay in hotels with virtually all of the comforts of home, and sometimes many more. This is understandable because the traveler might just be seeking rest. However, if one is seeking the epiphany or enlightenment experiences talked of by backpackers and ashram-dwellers, that’s not something that comes from staying in resorts or eating at American fast food joint. Those kinds of brain changing experiences come when one is stripped from the familiar and has to surrender one’s attachments to the way one thinks the world should be. One’s perception of culture and worldview changes radically when immersed in a foreign environment.
2.) Game it / Roleplay: There’s a big movement to gamify all manner of everyday activities. In her book, “Reality is Broken,” scholar of game design Jane McGonigal describes a game called “Chore Wars” that incentivizes the doing of mundane household chores.
What is it about games that help one move beyond one’s limits? First of all, it incentivizes actions. And if you’ve ever noticed people playing games on their phone or FB for hours on end, you’ll note that it doesn’t take much reward to keep people plugging away—as long as the game is structured well.
Second, good games provide a built-in process of “leveling up.” This means that the challenge keeps being intensified as our skill level advances. Those familiar with Csikszentmihalyi’s conception of “Flow” will recognize that matching skill level to challenge level is one of the most crucial elements in facilitating flow-state.
Roleplaying is a bit like the previously mentioned tools of visualization and gaming in that it’s a way to have a low-cost rehearsal. If one has someone with whom one can engage in such a roleplay, than one also has someone to help make you aware of your inner critic and its deleterious effects. And that brings us to the final tool:
1.) Have a spouse, partner, and or confidant: In “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” Robert Sapolsky tells a story of being interviewed by a magazine. He was asked what the number one thing that they could tell their readers about reducing stress. To which he replied that the most well-established factor in stress reduction is to have a spouse / life partner with whom to share one’s challenges. Unfortunately, this was a magazine for women business leaders, a significant portion of whom had given up on permanent relationships and families. They, therefore, asked him what else he had. Still it’s hard to overlook the anxiety-fighting effects of having someone around with whom to share one’s dread.