What should we think about fear? Maybe Aristotle can guide us in the way he assessed the very different, but often related, emotion of anger. He believed the value of this powerful state of mind and heart could be revealed by such questions as: Toward what or whom? In what measure? For how long? And to what end? We should probably ask the same questions about any instance of fear. When there are real dangers, fear is rational. And it can be reasonable for us to allow it sometimes to call the shots, determining our thoughts and actions at a particular moment, or in a certain fraught situation, and thus guiding our behavior then and there. But this should not be a common occurrence. And there could be a better alternative.
A courageous person never lets fear unhinge him or her and always seeks to do the right thing, regardless of any dangers that might loom and threaten. Sometimes, that means listening to fear and accepting its guidance to pause, or stop, or retreat, or avoid. There are times when it's wise to be moved by fear. But in modern life, this emotion tends to intrude into our thoughts and feelings much more often than its help is needed. Practical wisdom, or prudence, demands that we respect a wide range of values in our actions, and those values encompass proper concerns for our own health and self preservation, as well as for those we love, and even to consider and protect a positive reputation among at least the wise in our communities. But fear is often a bully in its warnings that we may lose what we value, and is as subtle as any insidious force can be.
Fear has a thousand faces. It quite often presents itself as something other than what it is—as perhaps a common sense and reasonable desire for safety, or security, or comfort, or simply for what's known, as distinct from what might be clearly uncertain and unknown. It can make itself look like altruism, or moderation, or sheer rationality, and even when it's the polar opposite of these things.
I've let fear influence my choices far too often in life. But I never recognized it at the time. I was a master of self deception. And, whether I know you well or not, I can imagine that you are, too. We all have this unfortunate skill. We can rationalize almost anything. And the smarter we are, the more convincing we can be, not only to others, but to ourselves. We allow fear to mask itself as a proper concern for another person, or as the voice of reason, when it's not that at all. And we need to learn the form of discernment, a component of wisdom, that allows us to spot our emotions and motivations for what they are, rather than being moved around by what they appear to be. It's almost as if negative emotions can be illusionist shape-shifters and masters of disguise. Part of the Platonic program of stripping away illusions,and getting beyond appearances means unmasking them and refusing them illegitimate power.
Fear can present itself as any reasonable person's primary concern. After all, what's more important than survival, it asks us. Well, perhaps a lot. I've come to see fear as being, at best, a rare and secondary motivator along the course of an imperfect life. Yes, it can be helpful. And for that we should thank it. By I now refuse to allow it to call the shots as often as it would like. I'll feel its cousin anxiety arise within me, but nowadays I'll spot it, and question its validity in the moment or the situation, and dismiss it from my heart and mind when it's counterproductive, or in other ways uncalled for. I hope you will, too.
Salespeople are trained in some organizations to act on the fact that most people are much more motivated by a fear of loss than by a desire of gain. And I have a corresponding suggestion: We should not be among those fearful people, and thus, by our own independence, diminish their numbers. No one has ever attained excellence or greatness by following a path of fear. No one ever made his or her best contribution to the world from a place of fear.
It's often been said that we're motivated by two forces, love and fear. I recommend love. It's a vastly better guide, overall, than fear. It can give us most of the occasional, admittedly positive results of fear, when it's working properly, and yet without the negative constraints and deceptions. Love, understood properly and done right, should be our prime mover and most consulted guide.
It's a perspective worth pondering. And in the end, I think that love is a mark of true courage. That's why we hesitate ever to attribute this virtue to suicide bombers or any terrorist. Their fanaticism may mimic courage and produce a counterfeit that's convincing in the minds of their fellow fanatics, but that's because they fail to understand the nature of true courage, by their blindness to true love. And any of us, in lesser ways, can make the same mistake. Love puts fear in its proper place. And as the Gospel says, perfect love casts out fear. When love is perfected, this alternative motivator is not needed at all. It's a state of being for us all to hope for and to seek to attain.