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In Sight of Ourselves: 4. Fear (November 2, 2001)

Fear is an emotion that arouses us to flee from threat. The word "fear" is derived from the Old Saxon "far" meaning ambush or danger.

Our fear tells us that we believe we are threatened. When we were toddlers, unfamiliar people and sounds may have startled us. We might have fled in terror from a wind-driven piece of paper when it seemed to chase us. As we grew older and our imaginations became even livelier, we trembled in our beds as a tree scraped the gutter outside our window as a storm approached in the middle of the night. Or maybe we decided something had found shelter in the dark spaces under our beds. Or believed a malevolent creature would abduct us away in the dark of night.

Adults who unleashed their unpredictable anger toward us at moments notice might have terrified some of us the most. Such fear can linger far into adulthood. We adults know fear too. Like children, we can suffer from the oppressive hand of panic. Fear is an emotion that has survival value. Fear of heights make us pull back from the precipice. Fear of being hit by a bully on the playground makes us cautious when he is nearby. Fear of terrorists can make us more aware of our surroundings. Fear is productive when the threat of ambush and danger is real. The energy fear generates within us gives us more strength and sharpens our perception.

Fear itself can be dangerous, though, when we misunderstand or exaggerate the threat. We may create enemies where there are none and waste time and resources needlessly. We may refuse to open our mail because we believe it be laced with anthrax or treat our Muslim neighbors with disdain because we imagine all of them to be part of some insane conspiracy. When fear takes control, we make ourselves landlords to ghosts.

Fear is also dangerous because it may provoke us into doing something foolish. William L. Sullivan said, "Life is a battle in which we fall from wounds we receive in running away." Mistreatment of our Muslim neighbors gives comfort to those who would use fear to weaken us. They are the bullies of our childhood, these barbarians who thrive on our fear, like vampires drawn to blood.

Should we be afraid? Yes. Danger does exist around us. Reasonable fear can make us smart. Yet, a stout heart can manage fear. The hearts of the firefighters who went up the steps of the WTC beat rapidly from fear as well as exertion. Nevertheless, they went up the steps despite the urge to flee with those who rushed down. The least I can do to honor them is to open my mail.

In his "See it Now" broadcast, Edward R. Murrow responded to Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt by saying, "We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we … remember that we are not descended from fearful men." This nation was and will be built on the shoulders of people who faced fear with a backbone, not a wishbone.

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