Archive for January, 2012

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Fear

I mulled over a lot of options while thinking about what to write about for the letter ‘F’. Faith, friends, family, fun, freedom, forgiveness, fatherhood are all topics I want to expand on at some point during this process, but in the end I chose ‘Fear’ because overcoming one’s fears is probably the single most important thing one must do to live the fullest, most productive life possible.

In small, rational amounts, fears are generally fine things, and certainly serve their evolutionary purpose, alerting us to possible threats and dangers, and preventing us from attempting feats which could prematurely end our lives.

Alas, fears don’t often come in modest doses; they prefer to go big, to expand into paralytic phobias, wiggling their way deep into our psyches, crippling us from doing things that could dramatically enrich our lives.

It’s fear that will prevent you from asking your high-school crush to the prom.

It’s fear that will keep you from majoring in theater.

Fear will have you settle for the first job offer thrown your way. Keep you stuck in your hometown.

It is why you won’t buy that stock, start that business, kiss that girl, write that novel, visit that city, join that group, forgive that enemy, fight that battle, take that leap.

It’ll convince you to avoid a confrontation and refuse a challenge, to shirk commitments and shrink from changes.

Fear is the bitter-tasting wellspring for jealousy and hate and cynicism and regret.

In the end, fear will only leave you wondering what might have been.

Overcoming one’s fears, however, is no simple task; I certainly have few answers. This is strictly a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ piece.

I mean, I know how silly most of my fears are, how freeing it would be to rid myself of them, yet they still cast a very strong shadow in my life.

I may have outgrown or pushed aside out of necessity certain of my fears, but mostly I have failed thus far to do something which I know is of utmost importance.

It’s all quite sad, and I’m sure you’ll find more useful assistance within modern psychiatry or on the shelves of your local bookstore’s self-help section. Or perhaps conquering one’s fears merely requires accessing a reservoir of inner fortitude I don’t have or haven’t yet been able to reach. I only hope you will be more successful.

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Now for your amusement and education, I’ll quickly rundown a small sampling some of my more prominent fears – rating them on their intensity, rationality and impactivity (not a word I don’t think but should be) – and hopefully you’ll be able to see how destructive fears can be. Remember, this is merely a small taste of my fears, plenty more where these came from.

FEAR OF SNAKES, SPIDERS and OTHER CREEPY CRAWLY THINGS

Intensity – Low. So ever since I can remember, I’ve always hated bugs. Could never watch nature shows about creepy things, certainly couldn’t stomach it when such creatures dared enter my childhood home, dismantling its aura of safety and security in one fell crawl. If I would see in my room a spider (they were the most prevalent threat in suburban St. Louis living), my plan was always the same: Immediately flee the scene in search of my mother or father to have them get rid of the offending creature. If neither parent were home, I would not return to the scene of the crime for many hours, at which point I would just pray that the bug had the decency to crawl to my brother’s adjoining room.

Thankfully, over time, this particular fear has dissipated. Granted, I still get the chills and make that crinkled-up face when I encounter a bug. And I still strongly believe that civilized man and creepy crawly things should keep to their own natural habitats (thus my aversion to almost all outdoorsy activities, most notably camping).

But I now have a wife of my own, who is at least as averse to creepy, crawly things as I am, and removal of such creatures now justifiably falls to me, the supposed man of the house. I generally succeed in the task, with only minimal shrieking.

Rationality – Medium. True, those creepy, crawly creatures generally mean no harm, and most couldn’t do harm even if they had the desire, but a small number can be poisonous and/or spread disease. And let’s face it, all of them are rather unhygienic.

Impact – Low. Even at the height of this fear, it was never particularly paralyzing. It did perhaps prevent me from pursuing my dreams of becoming an exterminator.

FEAR OF FLYING

Intensity – Medium. I am still not convinced man should ever leave terra firma. I’m not a fan of the ocean, spooked out by its sheer vastness and by all the unknown, unseen things living in the blackness below (the fact I am not a strong swimmer doesn’t help), but my fear of the water pales in comparison to my fear of flying.

This fear has actually intensified over the years – I never enjoyed flying, but now I dread the days I must travel the friendly skies. For me, the worst part is takeoff, as the process of fighting gravity and achieving flight just seems totally unnatural and full of hubris to me, like it’s doomed to fail because we’re somehow disturbing nature’s laws or god’s will.

I think I’ve just seen one too many disaster flicks, but I just cannot fathom a more dreadful way of dying: Being trapped for several minutes in a plummeting, shaking vessel with nothing but the sound of screams and chaos to keep you company as you wait for the inevitable crash and the horror that will surely follow. (Well, perhaps drowning would be worse, but with some flights you have the chance of a water crash landing, making it a 2-for-1 special in worst ways to die).

Rationality – Medium. Now I know the stats that say flying is by far the safest mode of transportation, but I still believe the absolute horrific nature of what goes down in a plane crash justifies my fears on some level.

Impact – Low. So far, I’ve been able to just bear down and deal with the white knuckles. I’ve pretty much gone everywhere I’ve needed to go, including a couple of long trips to Europe and China. But with a new daughter, I sure do wish at least one set of grandparents lived within train distance!

FEAR OF DYING

Intensity – High. I’m pretty sure I was like most kids, completely unconcerned with my mortality. But ever since my maternal grandfather got sick some 20+ years ago, I began to be consumed by thoughts of death. Despite the fact that my paternal grandfather was the only close relative who died relatively early (mid-5os), I was convinced that I was going to die young. I think what I fear the most is the process – I don’t know what it’s going to feel like to die, but I assume there is going to be a lot of pain and suffering involved (I imagine it being like the worst flu you’ve ever had and you just don’t get better – though obviously a sudden death would be much different). I saw both my grandmothers die and it was an awful process, one that I think as a modern, evolved society we could handle a lot better. Many nights I keep myself up with thoughts of death and dying, often with me as the main subject. Unpleasant stuff, to say the least.

Rationality – Medium. You would think that this would be one of the more rational fears to have. Everyone does, in fact, die at some point. It’s likely to be quite painful. You don’t know the where or when, so there’s a disconcerting lack of control over the matter. And unless you’re a person of deep faith (in religion or science), what happens afterward is more than a little frightening to ponder. But actually, and partly because of all these reasons, death is a highly irrational thing to be afraid of – and certainly not worth wasting the precious minutes of living worrying about death often involves. It’s going to happen – you don’t know when or how but it’s likely going to suck – and you won’t know what comes next until it does, so why not appreciate your life and good health while you have them.

Impact – Medium.  Here’s the crazy thing – while the pain of death is certainly a major reason for my fear of it, at least a part of what I fear is that I will die with unfinished business and view my life as a waste of time and energy. But it’s my fear of dying, along with all of my other fears, that often prevents me from fully living. How utterly asinine.

The solution isn’t to ignore our mortality, either, which is what I find myself – and a lot of other people – doing, maybe as a kind of survival tactic (I know it’s somewhat contradictory for a person who fears death as much as I do, but even today, when I read about someone near my age who dies – an alarmingly more frequent occurrence – I feel oddly detached from the news, as if death was this surreal concept that won’t ever affect me or those closest to me). Instead, I need to respect death, come to grips with its finality, its inevitability, and its ultimate meaning, and use that understanding to better take advantage of the finite, glorious blessing that is life. Respice finem.

FEAR OF REJECTION/FEAR OF FAILURE

Intensity – High. These are actually two different fears but they’re closely related enough (and this blog is way too long already) that I’m lumping them together. Being rejected means being dismissed out of hand, without even being given the shot to prove yourself – think of the woman at the bar looking for the escape route, or the potential employer tossing the cover letter in the trash. Failing is even worse; It means you are given a chance but fall short of people’s expectations. Think of the woman several months later dumping you, or the boss firing you. In the former case, you fear people think you’re a fraud. In the latter, you know people think you’re a fraud. And in my life, both fears are omnipresent, and hugely paralyzing.

Rationality – Low. The worst part is these fears make little sense. First of all, only the rejected can give rejection its power. Who cares what other people think of us, our looks, our personality, our talents? You will never please everyone so you shouldn’t take rejection personally. Dismiss it. Scoff at it. Reject rejection. And as far as failure is concerned, it’s virtually a prerequisite for success. I defy you to find a successful person who hasn’t been waylaid by a significant failure at one point in their lives. The only trick is not letting failure stop you, which is, of course, a trick much easier said than done.

Impact – High. No fears have done more damage to me than these two. And while I won’t ever know the full extent of the opportunities that I may have lost because I was too afraid of rejection and/or failure, I do strongly believe I never reached my full potential because of these fears. In the words of the Rev. Sydney Smith: “A great deal of talent is lost to the world for the want of a little courage.”

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Evil

“I may hate the sin, but never the sinner.”

I first encountered that quote many years ago while reading Irving Stone’s Clarence Darrow for the Defense, and it has stuck with me ever since, upsetting me in a way a throwaway line in an obscure book rarely does.**

How can one separate the sin and the sinner, I wondered.

Just read the history books, studded with crimes committed on such a grand scale that you question how we could possibly be an evolved, enlightened species.

Or watch the news, and see the just-as-horrific, but much more intimate, personal acts of violence and cruelty happening right now, right down your block, acts which you are ultimately just as powerless to stop as those in the history books.

With all the evil menacing the world, how can one allow for such a distinction between sin and sinner? Surely, they are both worthy of our scorn and anger and – if there is justice in this world – our punishment …

A couple of months ago, I was watching Bob Costas interview Jerry Sandusky, the ex-Penn State coach accused of committing terrible sexual atrocities against numerous young boys who had been entrusted to his care. The coach was trying to assert his innocence, but it was an incredibly damning performance, full of odd pauses, incongruous justifications, and frankly, sheer lunacy. In my mind, he was guilty of something, and if only a fraction of the alleged crimes were true, then this was clearly a very evil man, deserving certainly of our hatred, not to mention of the harshest punishment imaginable that a civilized society can dole out.

But upon reflection, I realized something important: I couldn’t relate to this guy at all. The things he allegedly did, the way he was trying to explain himself, his entire thought process, it was all completely foreign to me. How could I possibly understand him? I wasn’t attracted to little boys. I couldn’t go around committing acts of tremendous brutality on innocent kids, and then find ways to justify my actions. And then I thought of another quote (also widely misattributed to the Bible):

‘There but for the grace of God, go I”

I mean, what if, for whatever reason – whether because of a genetic predisposition or something that happened during my childhood (or both, which appears to often be the case with true pedophiles) – I was only attracted to little children.

How awful and how difficult would it be to have to go through life constantly denying a key part of one’s essence and the pleasure associated with sexual satisfaction? Would I be willing to resist the temptation to act on my illicit desires? Probably so, but only because my conscience wouldn’t allow me to hurt others, even if for my own benefit, a trait I attribute to the extremely constructive nurturing I’ve received … something which Sandusky almost certainly did not have.

So I saw the situation in a new light. I was fortunate to have a strong, normal upbringing, showered with love, instilled with high morals and values, taught the power of self-esteem and the difference between right and wrong. Just as importantly, I was wired to accept all those lessons and internalize them – to do and be (mostly) good.

Sandusky, on the other hand, clearly has faulty wiring. Assuming he is guilty, he was cursed with an abnormality, a disease, which I was blessed to not have. He also likely had a destructive childhood, or at least destructive events within his childhood, that made it too hard for him to avoid the disastrous consequences of his disease and/or made it too easy for him to justify those consequences.

The same can be said for the vast majority – if not all – of the people who commit similar atrocities. That’s not to say we should forgive these people; certainly that is a difficult thing to ask, especially if we or our loved ones have been personally victimized by such evil deeds. Nor does it mean we should be lenient in our treatment of those people. If anything, this mindset may call for harsher punishments: If genetics is the root cause of evil, then redemption and rehabilitation are virtually impossible; and if nurturing is to blame, the best modern medicine and psychiatry has to offer won’t likely accomplish much either.

No, we may not forgive or show mercy, but we can perhaps understand evil in a more constructive light.

I was recently reading  an article in New York magazine about Levi Aron, the Hasidic Jew who kidnapped, murdered and – in a subsequent panic – dismembered an 8-year-old boy in a crime that generated a great deal of local publicity for its grisly nature and unusual circumstances. At the end of the piece, the distraught father of the boy is cursing Aron, and a fellow Hasid is trying to comfort the dad with a passage from the Talmud.

“I told him he shouldn’t hate,” the man said, “because God is in everything.”

I’m not a religious man, so I don’t know about God’s relationship with evil – if He is responsible for the awful atrocities that permeate our world, then he is not worth my faith or devotion. But I do agree that hate isn’t the appropriate emotion for dealing with evil men.

No, Darrow had it right. You can hate the sin, but you should pity the sinner.

Pity the sinner, and be thankful that you are not one of them.

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**Many folks, myself included, believe the quote or one like it was something Jesus said in the Christian bible, but it’s actually a paraphrase of something written in a letter written by St. Augustine – Ghandi also referred to it in his autobiography.


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