Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Gift of Fear

Everyone fears one thing or another.  Some fears are what most people would consider rational.  Others, such as acridophobia (the abnormal fear of grasshoppers) and apiphobia (the abnormal fear of bees) are what most people would consider irrational.  Sometimes, we are gripped by fear of things that aren't even real, which is probably a step down from the usual phobias since at the very least, bees, grasshoppers, and the like are real things.  As a kid I had the occasional nightmare, just like most kids.  One that I remember particularly well was a dream about small, brown aliens.  The dream started out as a National Geographic-type show with a guy in a blind hunting these little aliens.  Later, the aliens made it to our house in Centerville, came through the window well (of which I was already deathly afraid because a muskrat had once fallen in and made the typical scratching and scurrying noises), and wreaked havoc in our house.  We were able to trap them in the basement bathroom, but when they learned how to flush themselves down the toilet, they were able to get out of the house and reintroduce themselves into the environment and again enter our house.  I awoke from that dream sweating profusely, sure that, in the middle of the night, all alone in my basement bedroom with two window wells, I was sure to become the aliens' next victim.  Odd shadows around my desk only assured me that hordes of the little creatures were hiding underneath or behind the desk.  I lay awake for a couple hours in an adrenaline-fueled vigil, tightly cocooned in multiple slowly-becoming-soaked-with-my-sweat blankets, waiting for the aliens to emerge from their hiding place to attack.  It never happened, and I fell back asleep.

Book cover.In his book The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence (ISBN: 978-0-440-50883-0), Gavin de Becker attempts to help people push irrational fear out of their lives so they can be properly attuned to true fear, which he claims is a positive aspect of our bodies' natural reaction to things.  Fear, he says, helps us respond appropriately to situations that have a real chance of resulting in our being harmed or killed.  De Becker is an expert on security issues, criminal justice, and public safety.  His book reflects that in that most of the examples and the topics of discussion involve things like corporate safety, dating safety, and child abuse.  As one with a wide range of experience — personal, research, and professional — the examples given are not only gripping, but provide lessons learned.  De Becker explains how we can often predict violence and gives some suggestions on how to get out of those potentially violent situations with minimal damage done.  As someone who has found much of what Glenn Latham says in his book The Power of Positive Parenting: A Wonderful Way to Raise Children to be true, I was intrigued by de Becker's claim that stalking, whether from an estranged spouse to a crazed fan to a disgruntled employee or anything in between, can usually be solved by ignoring the stalker.  The overarching message of the book, of course, is that our natural intuition will help us in most dangerous situations, but only if we are informed enough to not have our head full of worries and anxieties caused by unfounded fear.

While the message of the book was a good one, I was rather underwhelmed by the book.  While child abuse, spousal abuse (mostly wife abuse), rape, and stalking are real problems, I found that robbery, burglary, and assault were under-represented in the book.  I wanted to know how to deal with walking down the street at night and being met suddenly by a few people out of nowhere.  I found de Becker's obvious political leanings to grate on the reading.  His explanations of fear were solid, but always included a final note about how we got this through evolution.  The explanation stood without evolution — evolution or creation doesn't matter in this discussion; the fact that we work the way we do is sufficient.  The same line of reasoning applies to de Becker's grossly unfounded position on gun control.  In an appendix, de Becker goes so far as to say the right to bear arms is a "so-called right."  He may be a security expert, but he's obviously no historian.  He should just leave politics out of it and tell us how to deal with violent people who happen to have guns.  Finally, I was no big fan of the author's philosophy, even though it's a wide-spread philosophy.  He claimed we only truly fear something when death is the result of that something (this is based, in part, on the current interpretations of evolutionary theory (and maybe on older interpretations, but I don't know enough about them to really comment)).  This is, of course false, and the author admits as much when later in the book he writes that we truly fear only that which can harm us or kill us.  There are many things I fear worse than being killed, and being educated about those types of crimes would vastly improve the book as would a little more effort on de Becker's part to focus on the subject at hand and not tangential opinions.

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This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXI John Pruess.

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