When ordinary fear is enough

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

I used to think all the great kinds of fear were personal ones. Artisanal fear; handcrafted fear; the kind of things that came with a story worth telling. Being lost a bit too long in Japan; crashing an ATV in Qatar; Running with the bulls. Some real life or death adventure, lest I fall victim to ordinary fear.

Back in late March, when it became increasingly clear that it was altogether conceivable that our healthcare system could collapse under the weight of this pandemic, I recognized I was experiencing a kind of universal fear. Certainly not ordinary, exactly, but something so widespread as to begin to feel ordinary. A universal fear that very nearly every person on the planet was experiencing at the same time.

Perhaps there has never been a time when more people in the world were scared of the same thing at the same time.

Then in April, as it became clear we were about to have the second once-in-a-lifetime economic shock in a decade, I, again, found myself being very scared of something that was very truly global. Holding fear about being squashed by economic systems is very much an ordinary fear. Now, as both the pandemic and economic shock continue, a years-long Black Lives Matter movement is having an even broader and more lasting moment. It feels very much like a reckoning— especially as protests spread to suburbs and small towns.

Fear about the sheer weight of institutionalized racism is an ordinary fear, something that especially Black Americans and other marginalized communities have to confront constantly. Heightened tensions can add stress for everyone, but the healthy fear to hold in this moment is whether we can make sustained progress. (This country has an enraging history of white backlash to any progress for Black Americans)

That fear should motivate us to do more, not less. (Remember Dr. King warned of whites that preferred peace over justice; the origins of the ‘No Justice No Peace’ protest chant) Safe to say a kind of fear is widespread, even if there are different flavors of fear.

This made me think of other experiences that give me very familiar kinds of emotional reaction, experiences that feel so pedestrian I don’t like addressing them. Like how I avoided the fear of the consequences of teenage sins, or didn’t let myself fear the death of my mother when she was still quite young, or how I avoided the fear that underpinned the worthlessness I felt for the first several years of my career. mired in a recession Better to go find better, rarer, extraordinary fear, I thought then.

But 2020 has shown me something. Following pandemic, recession and civil unrest, I am taking on another ordinary fear: I became a father this month. It may be one of the most common experiences of them all, parenthood may be the classic ordinary fear. It may have taken me far too long to confront the obvious: real, true fear is no parlor trick. Ordinary fear, common fear, universal fear, that which terrifies us all, is the most gripping fear of it all. Real fear is that which we’ve socialized out of polite conversation. That means, of course, it’s also the kind of fear we most need to embrace, attack and put on display — raw and ugly and personal.

In one of the Socratic dialogues (Laches) that I first read as an undergrad, Plato and other thinkers discuss the definition of courage. One of the suggestions is the “Courage is knowing what not to fear,” a quote that is often attributed to Plato. But what gets lost is that the group ends up dismissing that definition. No one can know what is worth fearing or not; no one can say who is motivated by fear and who is held back by it.

I personally hold enough fear as to be called paranoid more than once in my life. I am motivated by fear. Fear is the act of identifying an obstacle — some trivial and some enormous. Our lives are made up mostly by either confronting or ignoring fears. I say onward.

As James Baldwin put, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

(Don’t Panic photo by Tonik via Unsplash)