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Fear, Good and Bad. Lessons from a Bad Week in Boston

Last week taught us some important lessons about fear. One is that fear is neither good nor bad. What matters is how we let fear affect us. It spurred racism and suspicion and stress and shut down a major American city for a day. But it also created incredible unity, as often happens when people are afraid. We are all Bostonians and Americans now, as we were all New Yorkers and flag-waving patriots after 9/11 and, shaken by reminders of our vulnerability to wanton mass violence, we felt unity with the victims of Oklahoma City, and Newtown, and Aurora.

The other lesson is how naïve it is to suggest that we can simply decide to Keep Calm and Carry On, “or the terrorists win”. Fear is not something we can turn off, something we can consciously control. President Obama said “The American people refuse to be terrorized. If you want to know who we are, how we respond to evil, that’s it; selflessly, compassionately, unafraid.” As laudable as those aspirations are, we simply can not ‘refuse’ to be terrorized, or choose to be unafraid. That’s not how human cognition and our perception of risk works. When we are threatened, our response to potential danger is far more a matter of feelings than facts, gut reaction than reason, and much more subconscious than under our purposeful conscious control. In fact, the more afraid we are, the ‘dumber’ we get, as neural wiring and chemistry literally diminish our powers reason in favor of more instinctive responses

As neuroscientists like Joseph LeDoux and psychologists like Paul Slovic have found, as history has repeatedly taught us, and as current events are reminding us, fear readily trumps reason when safety and survival are truly on the line. The Friday shutdown of Boston and major surrounding cities, which many are now starting to question as an irrational overreaction, sure didn’t feel that way when people were afraid.

To be sure, words like ‘terror’ and ‘fear’ are more dramatic than what many of us have been feeling. It’s probably fairer to say that at times like these many people feel more ‘unsettled’, or ‘worried’ or ‘on edge’. But make no mistake. Fear is definitely part of these emotions, probably at the heart of them; instinctive, protective fear, that we can’t simply turn off because we are called on to do so.

So what do we do with that instinct for self protection. Or rather, what does it do to us? Harm, certainly. Consider the United Airlines flight out Boston, carrying marathoners home the day after the bombing. Some passengers heard two men speaking Arabic and became so upset they forced the plane back to the gate, where the Arabic speakers were escorted off and put on another flight.

Fear heightens our suspicions – of people, packages, places. Many people may think twice about attending large outdoor civic celebrations. A TV reporter who was feet away from the bomb nearest the finish line, enjoying the civic celebration that is the Boston Marathon, said “It was the perfect day, a showcase of everything that is good. And then in that moment…it was a moment of the most terrible possibility realized. If this isn’t safe, what is?” A mother wept as she watched her 12 year-old daughter place a pink teddy bear at the makeshift memorial near the finish line for the bombing victims. “Before, I felt safe. I didn’t fear anything,” she said. “But now, I can’t trust people. We feel hopeless.”

Psychologically, loss of trust and increased feelings of vulnerability interfere with our ability to comfortably live our normal lives. Biologically, such persistent worry translates into chronic stress, a Fight or Flight or Freeze response that turns up the systems we need to protect ourselves when peril is imminent – heart rate and blood pressure, more cognitive focus on sensory inputs than careful rational thinking – and turns down the ones that are not of immediate value – our immune system, fertility, long term memory. Worrying is bad for our physical health in profound ways. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky)

But in many ways our response to fear is positive (beyond the obvious truth that caution protects us). Shared vulnerability unites us in the desire for safety and protection. We evoke the broad tribal/human commonalities we all share – by city, by country – when we share the same fear of what Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley called ”…the darkness that can lurk in the human heart”, the ever-present possibility of wanton mass murder so unpredictable and unpreventable that we feel powerless to protect ourselves as individuals. We have learned to rely in part on our tribe(s) for our health and safety, and in a desire for tribal acceptance and protection we do things that demonstrate our loyalty to the tribe, like caring for other members.

Consider the altruism of those who rushed toward danger to help the injured, even as most, quite naturally, fled. Consider those who shared their clothing with shivering runners, gave blood, or sheltered out-of-towners who couldn’t get to their hotels. Consider the moving displays of unity with Bostonians and Americans coming from everywhere; messages of prayer and solidarity from governments around the globe, people laying roses at the gates of the U.S Embassy in Moscow, Afghanis holding a sign that reads “From Kabul to Boston with Love” , even the ‘hated’ New York Yankees honoring solidarity with Boston.

Certainly those are expressions of compassion. But they are also a classic response of social animals to fear. And they are the kind of thing that occur again and again, everywhere this sort of violence frightens us. These responses are so universal that they must be part of the innate human condition, and certainly not unique to any one city nor just to urban dwellers, as Maria Konnikova and others suggest.

There’s potential danger in that too, of course. Because so many were worried, the public and businesses willingly went along with law enforcement requests to stay inside (they were voluntary, not mandatory), leaving streets eerily empty and reminding some of a police state. We rightly honor the first responders who protect us, and they were cheered by flag-waving crowds as they left the Watertown area after the arrest of the second suspect, but “Groupthink” deference to officials born out of fear has allowed governments to seize civil liberties, and has started many a war, even genocide. The widespread fear that ‘the homeland’ was under attack certainly helped the Bush Administration lie a frightened public into support for attacking Iraq.

But the point here is not to argue whether fear is good or bad. It can be both, depending on what we do with it. The point here is that simply declaring that we are unafraid, or that we should be, is not enough to make it so, and appeals like Bruce Schneier’s in The Atlantic to “Keep Calm and Carry On”, laudable as they are, are naïve, because we simply can not completely overpower our innate instincts for self-preservation. They are an inherent, automatic, protective part of who we are.

So instead of trying to be unafraid, the wiser course may be for us to simply try to keep our fears in check, and not allow excessive fear to become “the mind-killer” (Frank Hebert’s Dune) that clouds our ability to behave intelligently, the kind of “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror”, as Roosevelt put it, that makes us dumb and racist and paranoid and stressed out. Maybe the most realistic advice is captured by something Katherine Patterson wrote in Jacob Have I Loved; “To fear is one thing. To let fear grab you by the tail and swing you around is another.”


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