Afterthoughts: Scare Tactics

Maybe a little fear won’t hurt us.

illustration:  kelsey ige

Fears are weird things.

We’re all surrounded by very good reasons to be afraid. Some are huge and terrifying, and mostly out of our hands—natural disaster, war, economic collapse, cancer. Others are more practical—sharks, bed bugs, the prospect of failing at your job. These things can mess you up, but at least it’s possible to avoid or deal with them.

You’d think those dangers would be enough fear for anyone. But no, we somehow manage to conjure up additional boogymen with which to frighten ourselves.

Some are based on the most manini stuff. One of my friends is so afraid of roaches, she won’t even spell out the word. Not just the B-52 bomber kind, either—even the teeny little ones are “R-words” to her. Another friend won’t ride a bike, no matter if it’s on the sidewalk, or there’s a helmet involved.

And sometimes we just make stuff up. I know someone who’s convinced that a shadowy international cabal is plotting the New World Order—he sees Illuminati conspiracy-type stuff in every newscast, and CIA plants around every corner. It must be exhausting.

None of these phobias are particularly rational, which makes them easy for other people to scoff at, but they sure feel real to the one who’s experiencing them. I know, because I’ve got a few of my own.

I’ve got no problem with bugs, for the most part, but put me in the same room as a cane spider and I will freak out. Nothing with eight legs should be that fast! Gaah. Speaking in front of a crowd is a surefire way to make my heart race and my palms sweat. I’m also disproportionally afraid of falling. Heights are fine—I just can’t stand the idea of plummeting from them. I discovered this as a kid, when the cool thing to do at swimming pools and ponds was to leap in from the highest outcropping you could find. I jumped, to keep up with my friends, but each plunge made me die a little inside.

They say that’s the healthy thing to do: Confront your fears head on, take charge and show them who’s boss. I’m not so sure. Now that I’m an adult, I’m becoming OK with the idea that some fears are perfectly fine to hang on to, logical or not. Nobody cares anymore how exactly I get into bodies of water, but I’ve had to take a firm stand on another version of freefall hell: I will never jump out of an airplane. Well, at least not willingly.

Fifty years ago, that would be a perfectly sane choice—skydiving was either an extreme military maneuver or a last resort. More recently, though, technology has turned it into an amusement ride, safe for the masses. You no longer have to pack your own chute, pull the ripcord at the crucial moment, figure out where to land, or do anything, really, except close your eyes and scream. Skydiving has become known, in the past decade or so, as one of those thrilling, life-changing experiences that everyone is expected to add to their bucket list, along with kissing atop the Eiffel Tower and running a marathon.

I don’t care. There’s exactly one item on my bucket list: “Stay inside all planes until they safely land.” My fear of falling is welcome to stick around as long as it wants—no confrontations necessary.

Maybe our personal collections of little fears are actually doing us a service. Maybe there’s a finite amount of time that most people can spend worrying about stuff, and if we spend it being scared of horror movies, or giving speeches, or cockroaches, there’s no time left to contemplate the bigger horrors. Because, while it might be helpful to keep in mind that Honolulu is way overdue for a devastating hurricane, there’s less to be gained from lying awake at night in fear of terrorist attacks, or dying alone, or the fact that mankind’s entire existence is barely more than a blip on the way to the eventual heat death of the universe.

If I can shudder instead about cane spiders and giving speeches, I might just take what I can get.