Why Does Fear Exist?

Purpose of FearBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Fear can kill us in more ways than one.

In the Star Trek: Voyager episode “The Thaw,” the crew of the starship Voyager finds a planet that suffered an ecological disaster. Five of the aliens who lived there placed themselves into a timed stasis, set to release them when the surface was safe for them to live on again. The only problem is, when Voyager finds them, their scheduled time to emerge is four years in the past.

The crew brings the stasis pods on board Voyager to see what went wrong. Two of the aliens are dead of heart attacks, and the other three should have emerged, but for some reason, they haven’t. The problem isn’t mechanical, and they can’t wake them. They also can’t simply shut down the stasis pods without causing brain damage because all the aliens’ minds are connected to the central computer.

Two Voyager officers use the extra stasis pods to go in and see what’s happening. They find that the virtual reality where the aliens’ consciousness lives while they’re in stasis is pulling from their own fears to create Fear, a cruel, horrifying being. The two aliens who died were killed because Fear guillotined them, quite literally scaring them to death.

Fear refuses to release the surviving aliens—and now one of the Voyager officers—because, without them, he will cease to exist.

To rescue them, Captain Kathryn Janeway needs to figure out what it is that Fear wants. Why does fear exist?

“Why do people enjoy dangerous sports?” she asks Voyager’s doctor. “Why, after all these centuries, do children still ride on rollercoasters?”

She has a revelation about the answer, and she convinces Fear to trade her for the hostages.

“You show remarkable trust, Captain,” Fear says when she enters his world. “How could you be so sure I’d keep my word?”

“I’ve known fear. It’s a very healthy thing most of the time. You warn us of danger. Remind us of our limits. Protect us from carelessness. I’ve learned to trust fear.”

As Janeway’s consciousness filters into the system, Fear realizes she’s tricked him. She’s not actually in a stasis chamber at all. They’d found another way to let him feel her mind without putting her in danger of becoming trapped.

She tricked him because she realized the real reason for fear’s existence. “You know as well as I do,” she says, “that fear only exists for one purpose. To be conquered.”

It seems so simple. Whether we conquer fear by removing the threat, backing away from the limit we were about to break, or understanding, as Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” fear only exists to be conquered. It was never meant to be an emotion we lived with constantly.

The unhealthy type of fear (that doesn’t warn us of danger or exceeded limits) is the hardest to conquer. Fear was, quite literally, all in the aliens’ heads, but they couldn’t control their emotions enough to get rid of him. He held them prisoner—just as our fear, fear created by our minds rather than by reality, so often holds us prisoner.

And just like Fear killed the aliens, our fear can kill our dreams.

In his speech, Roosevelt defines this type of fear as “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

So what can we do to make sure unhealthy fear doesn’t stop us?

Learn to recognize when fear is hiding behind the mask of other emotions. Fear is sneaky. When you snap at your spouse because they were late getting home, you’re probably not actually angry. You were afraid something bad happened to them. But they don’t know that, and your fear just hurt your relationship. Until we recognize fear, we can’t deal with the root cause and stop it from hurting us. We can’t conquer it.

Let go of your illusion of safety. I’m a hypochondriac (and very embarrassed to admit it, actually). I routinely believe I have cancer, a blood clot, food poisoning, or a host of other problems most people have probably never heard of. Does fearing them actually keep me safe from them? Nope. Sometimes fearing something has zero value.

“Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” – Helen Keller

Recognize that failure can be a beautiful thing as long as we use it to learn. Many of us let fear of failure hold us back. If you try to reach your goal and fail, you’re back in the same place as if you’d never tried. So not trying doesn’t protect you; it keeps you stuck. In fact, if you don’t try, you’re actually further behind because you haven’t learned the lessons failure taught.

Have a contingency plan. I get laughed at sometimes because I’m extremely detail-oriented and I have contingency plans for my contingency plans. But I’m rarely caught off guard with something unexpected. I’m not afraid or stressed out because I know that if something goes wrong, I have a plan to deal with it, and I know it won’t take me long to recover. My much-mocked plans are actually my secret source of confidence.

Have you let fear hold you back? What’s your best tip for combating unhealthy fear?

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For an excellent post on how fear can be a gift, check out August McLaughlin’s Lifesaving Resolution #4: Trusting Your Instincts.

Image Credit: Lena Povrzenic (from www.sxc.hu)

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