Lately, I have given the concept of fear a lot of thought. Take the mutilation of the Bangladeshi student by her husband, so well discussed and problematized here at University of Venus. When I read that story, I was filled with lots of strong emotions: anger, revolt, pity, even helplessness. And a little part of me, the one that involuntarily identified with the attacked woman, also felt fear. Fear that this may happen again, to more people, even to people like me. Fear of brutality, of violence, of absurdity, of social conventions that are embraced entirely uncritically.
Fear is a very powerful sentiment, a very uncomfortable one, admittedly, but one that gets hold of us as individuals and, maybe, also as communities. Perhaps because it is so painful to touch, there is not a lot of public discussion about fear. We always prefer to think positively and start new things in the name of hope. The semester begins by listing our positive expectations, our wishes for the time ahead. We do not talk about our fears at the beginning of the next school year, or next project; we do not mention our insecurities and those areas that are at risk of endangering our dearly-held plans. This is not just superstition (“do not talk about the bad things, because they will be more likely to happen then”) or cheap psychology (“always think positively and then everything will be alright”). I think we are afraid of fear itself, or afraid of the image of ourselves that appears in the mirror held by fear. These apprehensions do not show us in the best light; we may be afraid to look silly, to look stupid, insecure, lying, unloved, unloving, dominating or superficial.
But facing our fears may not be as dangerous as it sounds. Most certainly, it takes a lot of self-insight and a lot of courage to do so, but naming those fears to oneself and perhaps sharing them with others may prove to be liberating. If the worries about what can go wrong are spelled out, they tend to prove less intimidating, their proportions normalize and they appear not as insurmountable obstacles but as practical problems that are likely to have pragmatic solutions. Sharing one’s fears with others, either friends or colleagues, may also have a positive effect. By allowing a glimpse of the less secure part of ourselves, we offer a more true-to-self picture of who we are and become more human to others, as they, in reciprocity, will become to us. In this way, we can strengthen the ties of friendship or build stronger work teams. Moreover, shared problems have a higher likelihood to have shared solutions. Brainstorming with others about possible ways of avoiding our worst fears will open possibilities that we alone could not foresee.
At the societal level, fear is also a strong motivator. I remember watching Michael Moore’s documentary on the Columbine shootings, and thinking about his argument that the US was a civilization of fear. The claim, as ungrounded as it remained in the documentary, that there are societies governed by fear is not so easy to throw aside. As International Relations scholars have written so convincingly about, threat, or the perception thereof, is a major part of shaping the foreign policies of many states. And threats do not function if we have nothing to fear.
Another example of how fear affects us as social animals is xenophobia, homophobia or what I would like to call the fear of the different. Be it skin color, or skin decorations, or language, or clothing, we meet the Other first with suspicion. If we allow our fears to take over, we build societies where subcultures or minorities are ostracized, unheard, oppressed. Fear gives birth to more fear, and these marginalized groups will also learn to treat the majorities that dominated them with apprehension. These societies cannot be sustainable in the long run, as they lack equality, social trust and ultimately social justice.
So is there anything to be done to break free from the prison of fear? One of the ways out may be through courage and confidence that any alternative to fear is better than the current state. To identify the fear is the necessary first step. Once these appear more clearly, their immediate and root causes can be identified, thus transferring fears into regular, solvable problems. Even when this is not possible, and certainly there will be situations when fears will remain fears, or will stay unarticulated, I think taking the courage to contemplate them will be beneficial. Fears can be transformed into forces for positive transformation, if only we dare to face them!
Anamaria writes from Lund, Sweden. She is one of the founding members of the editorial collective at University of Venus.