COLUMN: Now Fear This!

I have a policy about spiders. Some might disagree with me. PETA would probably be outraged-guessing by their reaction to the president killing a fly some time ago. Others, though, might concur.

My policy runs thus: All spiders, by virtue of their being, ought not to be.

Yes, I kill spiders. Because I despise them. Because they frighten me.

My disdain for these eight-legged monsters is not a new phenomenon in my life. When I was in middle school, I distinctly recall a moment in Ms. Cotter’s sixth grade English class when the most hellish albino spider I can think of had chosen the wrong day to creep across my desk in the back of the room. No sooner had the little bugger found his way to the top of my desk than I had prepared myself for retaliation. In a flash of what can only be described as blind furry, I had crushed the little beasty, flipping my chair backwards and my desk over forwards. The battle was won quickly, but not without frightening Ms. Cotter and the rest of the class. I still think they did not fully appreciate the valiant nature of my quick action!

Flash forward several years and I was digging on an excavation in Ashkelon, Israel. We were uncovering some monumental Roman architecture when a stir ran through the grid. A very large, very mean, very dangerous-looking spider had made a home in the vomitorium (which is actually just an entranceway in Roman-theater-speak, and nothing more). I, the resident anti-spider-faction leader and something of an American vigilante in Israel, took it upon myself to deal with the pest. I charged the beast with trowel and patiche in hand! The tiny fellow hopped and lept, ever narrowly escaping the heavy ends of my tools. After landing on and cracking part of the vomitorium’s archway, I gave in. The beast had won the battle-but not the war! I would be ready should he show his creepy face again. Luckily, he went his way and never returned.

Fear is a peculiar phenomenon, though not inexplicable. Along with several other emotions like joy, sadness, and anger, fear is one of our foundational emotions. More than this, it is a necessary part of our biological selves. The question of whether animals in general feel fear is not a simple one. In fact, it has been debated for some time, with some arguing that (at least certain) animals do possess consciousness and fear, and others proposing a stimulus-response sort of dynamic that can explain what may appear as fear. To be certain, though, we humans possess the cognitive ability to feel fear, and it has helped us along in our evolutionary progress.

As early as a few months, babies show signs of fear. They react to unfamiliar environments and unexpected changes. Separation and stranger-anxiety appear in the child rather early, as well. When they can begin recalling past events, they will remember that Mommy was just with them, but now she is not-this anxiety can lead to crying and fearful facial expressions. Although these fears or emotions are not equivalent to the more complex cognitive emotions and thought processes that adolescents or adults undergo, they are insights into the development of human fear at our earliest stages of life.

But this kind of development of fear is a necessary, biological development. The sensory cortex in the brain processes what our senses might tell us are threats or dangers. These are stored in the memory and later brought to the forefront in different circumstances. We might engage the fight-or-flight response to a threatening stimulus, or we might become fearful or anxious about another. Either way, this natural process enables us to survive, to react to our environments in appropriate, life-preserving ways.

Then there are phobias. Much like my description above, phobias are anxieties about objects or situations disproportionate to the real threat posed.

They are often categorized popularly as irrational fears. My fear of spiders, while explicable to a degree, is somewhat irrational when it leads to screaming, flipping desks, or breaking monumental architecture.

These sorts of phobias are often treated with behavioral or psychological therapies. In some cases, dealing with a phobia can be a real challenge for the sufferer. In others, it can be more manageable.

I make light of my arachnophobia, but truly debilitating fears can overcome people. What, then, should we make of fear in general? Obviously, fear is not something we should let conquer us. In all cases, whether the fear is generated from a real or imagined threat, it is not good for us to be drowned in it. But neither is it good for us to be wholly absent of fear. Flagrant disregard for fear might make someone bolder and more daring, but it can also make someone “stupider,” as Dr. Kelly McGonigal claims in her article “Why We Need a Little Fear,” posted on Psychology Today in 2010. She explains that fear, though disliked at times, is a necessary part of making good, self-controlling decisions. It can help us manage our behavior, our relationships, our finances, and much more. To fear, then, is to be wise … at least that is part of it.

We might be tempted to cling to pithy quotes like “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” (President Franklin Roosevelt) or “Even though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil” (Psalm 23), and to curse or spurn our fears. But we should not underestimate the value of fear. It is a humbling thought to know that fear is necessary and would be missed should it disappear. It is equally humbling to know that it can overwhelm someone beyond the point of recovery.

It is hard to say “control your fears, son!” and have that be it. There is no secret trick to having the “right amount” of fear. It just is. But I think we can call for respect. As Benjamin Disraeli put it: “Fear makes us feel our humanity.” Simply recalling that we ought to be neither invincibly bold nor crushingly timid might help us remember our humanity.

Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.