Facing Our Fears

Posted on October 9, 2019

In 1819, 20 American sailors were aboard the whaleship Essex about 3,000 miles off the coast of Chile.[1] Out in one of the most remote parts of the Pacific Ocean they were struck by a sperm whale; taking on seawater, they were beginning to sink. The men evacuated to three small whaleboats, with rudimentary navigational equipment and minimal supplies of food and water. Today the sailors would be facing a terrible situation, back then it was significantly worse. The fear that they must have felt would have been all consuming.

The men were just about as far from land as it is possible to be anywhere on earth. They had 3 options in front of them. The nearest islands were the Marquesas Islands, 1,200 miles away; the problem was that the men had heard frightening rumors that those islands were populated by cannibals and so they feared coming ashore only to be murdered and eaten. They could head for Hawaii, but given the season the captain feared severe storms. The longest and most difficult option, for which they did not have adequate supplies, was to head 1,500 miles south in the hopes of catching a certain band of winds that would push them to the coast of South America. Their choices were to be eaten by cannibals, battered by storms or to starve to death before reaching land.

Ultimately, terrified of cannibals, they rejected the closest option and set sail for South America. As expected, after two months the men ran out of food; after more than three months the last of the survivors were finally picked up by two passing ships, less than half of them were left alive. The story would later inspire Herman Melville to write Moby Dick, and as he wrote: “All the sufferings of these miserable men of the Essex might in all human probability have been avoided had they, immediately after leaving the wreck, steered straight for Tahiti. But,” as Melville put it, “they dreaded cannibals.”[2] All of their options were frightening, but as Karen Thompson Walker, who shared this story puts it: “Of all the narratives their fears wrote, they responded only to the most lurid, the most vivid, the one that was easiest for their imaginations to picture: cannibals.”[3]

All of us know the power of fear as an emotion. When we feel scared there is a physiological reaction. “The [brain’s] amygdala sends signals to your autonomic nervous system which … kicks in, and suddenly, your heart rate increases, your blood pressure goes up, your breathing gets quicker, and stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released.”[4] We quite literally feel our fear.

There are probably good evolutionary reasons why this response developed. When confronted by a wooly mammoth, sabre toothed tiger or other pre-historic beasts, we can imagine that the people who didn’t feel fear and stood firm were very quickly removed from the gene pool. The biology of fear helped us to develop the fight or flight response, which served us well for millennia. Fear was an important emotion, with clear benefits for the pre-historic people who felt it. But today, while there are still positives to healthy fear of real danger, we are living in a time when that sense of fear appears almost overwhelming.

But we are not the first generation to experience fear. In 1933, at his inaugural address, President Roosevelt declared: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”[5] And in 1962 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “Today it has become almost a truism to call our time an “age of fear”. In these days of terrifying change, bitter international tension and chaotic social disruption, who has not experienced the paralysis of crippling fear.”[6]

So why does it feel different today?

Many have pointed to the horrific attacks of September 11th as ushering in this current age of fear. Terror arrived on our doorstep and this changed the discourse and debate. As David Rothkopf, the editor of the journal Foreign Policy has argued: ‘the country has crossed the fine line that separates national security from national insecurity. Fear now seems to drive more of the country’s policies”[7].

But many scholars were writing about a culture of fear before these horrific attacks. The spread of information, especially via the internet, means that today we receive our news unfiltered and also unverified. I will almost always know about a mass shooting through Facebook and Twitter, before I see, read, or hear a news report. Social media allows us to be whipped up into a frenzy about dangers both real and imagined.

And, I don’t know if it was always the case, but it feels like we are at a decisive moment in human history. A moment where our response will be judged by future generations. A UN General Assembly meeting in March  on Climate and Sustainable Development declared that we basically have 11 years left to prevent irreversible damage from climate change.[8] The exponential scientific advances of the last couple of decades have made us that much more aware of the world around us and the way that it is teetering under human dominion.

The fear feels more intense because it is on our doorstep, we are so much more aware of it, and it feels like this is the moment of reckoning. If this is true for the world and American society in general, this past year it also became a truth for the American Jewish community in particular.

It does not feel like an exaggeration to say that October 27th was one of those days where we remember life before it, but we are experiencing life after it. It is a day where I am sure all of us do, and all of us will, remember where we were when we heard about the murder of 11 people at the Tree of Life Congregation in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. That moment altered the American Jewish experience, debates about safety and security in synagogues and Jewish institutions were abruptly settled, and we are living in the reality of life after that event.

The Jewish community rightly feels afraid when there are white nationalists picking up guns and coming to our synagogues. We should be fearful when we hear the anti-Semitic canard of dual loyalty. And we should be afraid when members of Congress use anti-Semitic images and stereotypes when condemning the very right of the State of Israel to exist.

Terrorism, gun violence, environmental damage, virulent anti-Semitism – these are just four of the issues that may rightly be causing us anxiety, and we know that there are many others we could add to this list. The question for all of us is how will we face our fears and respond to the challenges of this moment?

In the wilderness the Israelites were gripped by fear. As they prepared to reach the Promised Land Moses sent 12 spies on a reconnaissance mission. They all agreed it was indeed a land flowing with milk and honey, but 10 of them were frightened by what they saw. They shared that when they saw the inhabitants of the land “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”[9] We have no idea what the inhabitants really thought when they saw the Israelites, what we know is that their fear made them feel like grasshoppers. The fear overwhelmed them so completely that it altered their perception of themselves.

This generation was consumed by fear and as a result they were unable to reach the Promised Land. But their children, the next generation, under Joshua’s leadership faced the future head on. I am sure they had their fears too; I am sure that there was anxiety about entering the land and that there were concerns about what would happen next. But they refused to be defined by their fears; they knew that fear could motivate them to fight and face the challenges before them head on. Moses and God’s rallying cry to the people was: chazak ve’amatz – be strong and have courage.[10] Courage to face their fears and strength to overcome them.

The generation of Israelites who failed to reach the Promised Land allowed fear to define them, and worse than that, alter the way they saw themselves. The men of the whaleship Essex allowed their most lurid fears to dominate their thinking and to lead them towards a course of action that would bring death for most of them. They are the cautionary tales of what not to do in this moment of fear.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyzes us. Normal fear motivates us to improve our individual and collective welfare; abnormal fear constantly poisons and distorts our inner lives.”[11] It is not a bad thing that we are fearful right now. There are things we should be justifiably frightened of. But it is time now for action.

All of his life Rob had been frightened by the monsters underneath his bed. He went to see a psychiatrist who told him that if he committed to a year of treatment, coming three times a week at a charge of $100 a session, he would be able to cure him. Rob said he would think about it.

Six months later the psychiatrist saw Rob walking down the street and asked him why he had never started his treatment. Rob said that he started to do the sums and he realized how much money it would cost and when he told a friend, the friend cured him for free. The psychiatrist was incredulous and asked how he achieved this miraculous feat. Rob said; “He told me to cut the legs of my bed – there’s nothing underneath there now.”

It is time for us to cut the legs of our beds.

In Community Organizing circles the first question that you are supposed to ask is: “What keeps you up at night?” I think the challenge is to become aware of what it is that is really causing us anxiety and then to unpack it. The question forces us to dig deeper to discover the core of our concern. But, most significantly, in that setting the answer to the question allows us to see that we are not alone. As people share their fears, they immediately see others nodding in agreement. When I mentioned the four fears of terrorism, gun violence, environmental damage, and virulent anti-Semitism I could see that these were resonating for many members of this community. In Community Organizing there is a feeling of solidarity and support in knowing that we are not alone in our fears, and there is a feeling of the potential power we might have if we choose to respond together rather than alone.

As we consider the question of what keeps us up at night, entrepreneur Tim Ferris suggests a way to respond to our fears. In his Ted Talk he suggests that we need to move away from goal setting and instead move to fear setting.[12] We need to write at the top of a page what is causing us fear. And then we need three columns. In the first column we write “Define”, we need to define the fear, what is it that we are actually afraid of, being specific in terms of what might happen. In the second column we write “Prevent”; and then responding to each of the specific fears we write what we might do to prevent them happening. And then in the final column we write “Repair”; if our worst-case scenario plays out what can we do to repair the situation. Breaking it down in this way reminds us that we are still in control – no we cannot control everything, but we have the power to choose how we will respond to the fears we are facing either with prevention in advance or repair afterwards. As Victor Frankl said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”[13]

In December 2013, medical student David Fajgenbaum was hovering a hair above death.  Suffering from a rare disease, his blood platelet count was so low that even a slight bump to his body could trigger a lethal brain bleed. A doctor told him to write his living will on a piece of paper. There was a lot for David to be afraid of as he battled Castleman disease, a rare autoimmune disorder. His near-death experience scared him, but it also motivated him.

When David finished medical school, instead of looking for a residency, he set about finding a cure for his disease. With each outbreak he noticed curious red spots on his skin. But his doctors, focused on saving his life, weren’t interested in these “blood moles.” But as David says: “Patients pick up on things no one else sees,” I think they do this because the fear opens their eyes that bit wider. And these proved to be the key to developing a treatment with a drug that was already on the market used for kidney transplants that could help. He got a prescription in February 2014 and almost six years later he has had no further outbreak, he married his college sweetheart, they have a daughter, and he is devoting his medical career to saving other patients like him.

David Fajgenbaum reminds us that even when facing our darkest fears, we have the power to choose how we will respond. We almost always have more power than we ever imagine. The problem is that abnormal fear brings with it a sense of powerlessness. We talk about the fight or flight response to fear, but sometimes there is the freeze response. We are frozen, feeling powerless, but we always have power in choosing how we respond, and almost always a lot more power than we imagine.

You know who understands this? It is the youth in our world who have truly grasped the idea that faced with our fears we are actually more powerful than we could ever imagine. Our teens are growing up in a culture of fear at a time when the news and media are telling them about the myriad things that they should be afraid of. A study conducted by MTV found that about a third of young millennials routinely plot out escape plans when attending concerts or sports at stadiums.[14] This is symptomatic of living in an age of fear, but it is also a statement that they will not allow fear to prevent them from attending concerts or sports events, instead they will choose how to respond to their fears. Fear is motivating our youth and I believe that we will all be better off for it.

In the aftermath of the shooting and murder of 17 children and teachers at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, their students mobilized. As Time Magazine wrote in a cover story on these teens: “Most of these kids cannot vote, order a beer, make a hotel reservation or afford a pizza without pooling some of their allowance … Yet over the past month, these students have become the central organizers of what may turn out to be the most powerful grassroots gun-reform movement in nearly two decades.”[15] And they have not stopped; fear has motivated them to action. And when we think about the dangers of environmental change and the impact we are having on the planet, I think about 16-year-old Greta Thunberg. While we adults might have accepted a position of powerlessness to face this head on, she has not. She rallied the youth and then stood before the United Nations last month to declare: “The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”[16] And our Jewish teens have recognized that as part of the fight against anti-Semitism we have to tackle and challenge prejudice and discrimination wherever we find it. They have been the leaders in this fight. In California, after Michaela Weinstein encountered racist and anti-Semitic slurs at her high school, together with a friend, she created SPEAK, a program designed to encourage young people to identify and fight bigotry. As she said: “Being Jewish gave me my first taste of activism … This was the first time I spoke publicly and took leadership.”[17]

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav is credited with the famous quote that became a song: kol haolam kulo gesher tzar meod, vehaikar lo lefached klal – the whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to be afraid. But Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker shares we’ve been singing it wrong, Rabbi Nachman actually wrote: “lo yitpeched klal”. He was talking about fear as reflective verb – the whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to terrify yourself, don’t let your fear stop you from moving or acting.[18]

Here’s the truth: we are living at a time when there is a lot to be fearful about.

But here’s another: living in this age of fear does not mean that we are powerless; instead it calls on us to realize our power to act. Fear saved us when facing wooly mammoths and sabre tooth tigers and properly harnessed, it can save us again.

I want to challenge us all to go home and do a personal fear setting exercise. Understand what it is that keeps you up at night and then also recognize that you have the power to prevent it or if necessary, to repair it. And then I want you to go out and do something. Find partners who share your concerns and recognize the power that you truly have to act in response to the fears we are feeling. Be inspired by our youth to think about what we older folks can do, or if you are one of our youth keep doing what you are doing.

From the fears of the generation in the wilderness, we became a people and entered Promised Land. From the fears of the Great Depression emerged the New Deal. From the fears of racial segregation, we enacted the Civil Rights Act. President Roosevelt said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” I wonder if what he meant was fear by itself, fear consumed by powerlessness, fear accompanied by inertia, fear without action. That is the greatest fear of all. But fear that awakes us from our slumber, fear that motivates us to act, fear that creates change, that is a fear to hope for. Yes, this may be the Age of Fear. And it is scary. And we’re right to be scared. But the question is not whether we should be scared. But whether we’re scared enough – to make things better. To do better. And to be better. Are we scared enough to change the world? And will we?

[1] This story is adapted from a retelling by Karen Thompson Walker in her Ted Talk entitled: “What Fear Can Teach Us” available here: https://www.ted.com/talks/karen_thompson_walker_what_fear_can_teach_us
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Dr. John A. Call – https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/crisis-center/200807/the-anatomy-fear
[5] http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5057/
[6] “The Mastery of Fear or Antidotes for Fear” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/Vol06Scans/July1962-March1963DraftofChapterXIV,TheMasteryofFearorAntidotesforFear.pdf
[7] https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/06/19/scared-tactics/
[8] https://www.un.org/press/en/2019/ga12131.doc.htm
[9] Numbers 13:33.
[10] Deuteronomy 31:6, 7, and 23.
[11] Michael Kinnamon – “The Witness of Religion in an Age of Fear”, p3.
[12] https://www.ted.com/talks/tim_ferriss_why_you_should_define_your_fears_instead_of_your_goals
[13] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/making-change/201307/dont-just-react-choose-your-response
[14] https://www.fastcompany.com/1683226/digital-natives-katniss-everdeen-and-exit-strategies-mtvs-data-driven-look-at-young-millenni
[15] https://time.com/longform/never-again-movement/
[16] https://www.npr.org/2019/09/23/763452863/transcript-greta-thunbergs-speech-at-the-u-n-climate-action-summit
[17] https://www.jta.org/2018/11/29/united-states/facing-anti-semitism-at-her-california-school-this-jewish-teen-takes-matters-into-her-own-hands
[18] https://jewishvancouverusa.org/rabbi-dunsker/sermons/whats-to-fear/