Columnist Daniel Cantor Yalowitz: Can’t let fear and its purveyors prey on us

Daniel Cantor Yalowitz

Daniel Cantor Yalowitz


Published: 03-17-2024 7:01 PM

“Do something that scares you every day.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

One of the key motivators in human existence — and part of the human condition — is fear. Who of us has never felt or faced fear? It is as universal an emotion as any other. Fear as an ongoing state of mind and being has become heavily weaponized and politicized over the past few years, particular under the auspices of our former president. For all too many of us, this has had the net effect of alienating and isolating us from ourselves and from one another.

Like anything else, we cannot focus on or work effectively with our fears without first understanding and contextualizing them. More often than not, however, one significant goal of fear for many is to deny, avoid, and purge it from our minds and hearts as quickly and completely as possible. In doing so, our belief, our hope, is that it will dissipate and disappear. However, there are times and situations wherein we hold the strength, stamina, fortitude, and courage to take risks either in spite of or because of our fear.

Either way fear remains within us. It can serve as a trap or an artificial floor or ceiling that may paralyze us or catalyze either attack or withdrawal. Fear also may be an opportunity, rather than serving as an obstacle. One of the outcomes of fear reactions and responses may have the consequence of making us feel smaller and lesser than our fullest selves, both individually and collectively. Or we may feel our confidence and competence coming forward when facing fear. Rarely does a day go by when we’re not aware of fear.

To be fearful may be to feel “less than”: a power asymmetry in action. All too often, we fear those whom we do not understand. Drawing this forward, we might say that fear is at least in part based on ignorance and not-knowing. It also emerges and arises out of lack of trust. That said, we might conclude that “fear is everywhere” — a human universal that we cannot manage, contain, control, or manipulate.

A list of human fears is quite comprehensive, including events such as war, poverty, hunger, minimization, unbelonging, homelessness, job insecurity, environmental degradation, death, to name some. We all feel our fears in unique ways. Some lack the necessary emotional self-regulation to hold back the impulse to act (negatively) on these fears. Fear looks and feels scary and can be overwhelming, or even exciting, at the same time. Where can we go, and what can we do to better face and work with our fears?

Fear is both an emotion and an activated result of our own and others’ attitudes, actions, and the spoken or printed word. And fear is also visceral — it is actually alive in our bodies, potentially causing negative effects on our internal organs and systems. Fear can cause physical, emotional, psychological, and relational damage. The field of neuroscience and studies on the human parasympathetic nervous system offer tremendous insight into this.

In his book “The Life of Pi,” author Yann Martel offers a nuanced statement about fear, noting that “[fear] is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary … it has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always … if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent that defeated you.”

Again and again, we see that politicians prey on and stoke up fear through hyperbole and the deliberate distortion of facts. This is made into daily “news.” Many of us internalize this and base our opinions and perspectives on our lives because of this.

Once we begin to experience fear as a manipulation for others’ personal gain and power, we have given ourselves the conscious option and opportunity to disengage the words of those preying on us. Doing so gives us at least a modicum of power, which allows us to think or act in a different way. When we successfully transform fear into positive actions such as resistance, speaking our truth to power, collectivizing our convictions, satyagraha (Gandhi), using our voices and our votes, and the ongoing search for truth and knowledge (among others), the opportunity exists to defeat our fears.

But fear is not totally unhealthy. It may provide stimulation and an uptick in energies needing to be activated, such as with the “fight or flight” response. Fear may enable us to reflect, rethink, reframe, and review a situation more carefully, and doing so may cause us to alter our approach to work through it. When facing fear, people may also feel they are stretching themselves to address something that has held them back from doing something of importance.

We will be more successful in taking on and overcoming our fears when we seek support from others. This can be done. In fact, throughout time, history, and geopolitical space, it has been done. We know the stories; we know those who have become martyrs because they had the courage and moral fortitude to speak up and act on their convictions and their fears with ethical integrity.

Joining our hands, our voices, our values, and strategic and cultural imperatives and vision for the betterment of all humanity can both disable our fear while empowering us to take right action. And so we must! Can we agree that we must not be fooled or manipulated into thinking that those who prey upon us have power over our minds, hearts, and lives? For the sake of all humanity, I hope so!