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  • Writer's pictureStuart Sheldon

Is Fear a Choice?

Many scientists believe we have but one innate fear at birth – FEAR OF FALLING. Everything else is learned.

Is there truth to the notion that fear is a choice? A weakness? That we need to “man up.”

I’m a pretty fearless guy. But I’ve always been and remain terrified of sheer heights. I’m even afraid when someone else is near the edge. Once, on a seaside cliff on Plettenberg Bay, South Africa, I sat with a group of surf pals ten feet from the ledge, my back pressed firmly against the grey rock wall. My intrepid pal, Rama, traipsed over to the precipice and joked as if falling to the ragged sea far below. My anxiety spiked, and I wanted to kill him for fear he might accidentally kill himself.

I believe my particular fear is innate … and perhaps universal. But then, how does one explain the guy who goes around eagerly scaling Half Dome and every other you-fall-you-die face WITHOUT ROPES?

Enough, I said one day!

The opposite of fear is love, so I planned to love me some heights at the foot of a craggy outcropping in Arches National Park, UT. No soaring vault of red rock was gonna mess with my 29-year-old invincibility. I climbed with abandon up a precarious column, never looking down until, at a most dicey elevation, a switch went off in my brain, as if someone turned off the machine that moved my muscles.

Soaked in full armpit sweat and deeply in need of my mommy, I looped pathetic visions of being stranded, cheek to rock, for hours until Helivaced off the side of that god-forsaken slab. It was one of the few times I felt literally paralyzed by anxiety. Mercifully, my friend let me step on his head and neck and other bits to get down.

Arches National Park

Arches National Park

I guess this particular fear makes sense from a Darwininan standpoint. Stay off the cliffs and procreate, you idiot. But what is fear in a larger sense?

Why are so many afraid of so much?

Seth Godin defines non-clinical anxiety as, “experiencing failure in advance” and “when you’re busy enacting a future that hasn’t happened yet and amplifying the worst possible outcomes.” I call it wasting precious emotional resources on things that will most likely NOT occur. A few years ago there were something like 12 fatal shark attacks worldwide. That same year, 79 people died from TVs falling on them. So, you were six times more likely to die watching a show about sharks than swimming in the ocean. Of course, our imaginations are often far more powerful than our rationality. Still, next time you feel the hair raising on the back of your neck, try to get real about the actual threat you face.

If perception is reality, then all fear demands respect. Or, at least, reflection. The question is which fear is legit and which is psycho-babble? I contend that some fear is, in fact, weakness which needs to be overcome. Like the self-inflicted worry that drives helicopter parents to shadow their toddlers around the playground, robbing their kids of basic self-preservation lessons. As if a skinned knee is something to think twice about. STOP RUINING YOUR KIDS, PEOPLE. Because the rest of us have to deal with them as adults once you muck them up. Let them live and hurt and be in the real world for a minute. It’s called CHILDHOOD.

image courtesy Lynn Kelley @ WANA Commons

Having said that, hard as I tried to manifest a successful outcome on that mountain, I just plain failed. And I’m all about making my own reality come to be. I mind-over-mattered the most important things in my life, as you’ll read in my book one day. I intentionally visualized and painted both my wife AND child into existence. Happy to share that epic story over pints.

But that day in Utah, my best shot bounced off the rim (luckily, I did not bounce off with it).

What do you fear? What keeps you up and night? And what do you realize is trivial, yet you still choose to worry about it?

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