What’s there to fear? It’s all relative

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I’ve long been listening to language cues as an indicator of underlying culture.

[a sentence truly written as only could be written by an ex-OD/HR professional]

When we speak and write, we simultaneously name and claim our world. If I say something’s a biscuit, then it’s a biscuit and, though my American friends will argue it’s a cookie, it’ll always be a biscuit to me. In so doing, I’ve both claimed the biscuit’s identity for myself AND claimed broader British culture as my heritage.

So it is that, for a long time during my corporate life, I listened to people conflating business challenges to mortal risk. We’d be in a planning meeting, reviewing status on a given project and someone would inevitably interject with a sentence beginning: “well, the danger of that is…”

And, of course, there was no danger, just some far-off risk that budget might go over, deliverables might not be… well… delivered or, heaven forbid, someone might not be pleased with the outcome despite the team’s best efforts.

But the language claimed mortal risk.

Of course, it’s all part of the pseudo-speak in business that is derived from military or sports historical context.

It’s all hysteria.

And it got me thinking of the nature of fear. And why societies, particularly western societies, trade so much in the language and expectation of fear. I read a great post this morning relating to ‘perfection’ (or more accurately, the pursuit and pretense of ‘perfection’) as akin to a disease and, underpinning that is the fear of being rejected.

Fear is only natural. Recent neuroscience has shown that our brains are attuned to threat or reward for any given factor – causing an ‘away’ reaction or a ‘toward’ reaction. The threat reaction far, far outweighs the reward reaction. For everyone. Period. We are built to sense threat first, and reward a distant second.

But just because all those neurons are firing, synapses snapping, doesn’t mean that the fear is a) real; or b) worth worrying about. As a simple example, when I was growing up, at the height of nuclear escalation and the cold war, the US and USSR had stockpiled enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several hundred times over

[however that’s measured]

and the ultimate threat for us was complete annihilation. A nuclear weapon is indiscriminate and its scale of destruction is immense. My childhood and teen years were replete with visions of the mushroom cloud. I grew up with those images.

Living within 10 miles of RAF Norwood

[which housed NATO radar defences, so would be a likely direct target in a nuclear strike]

we knew that the four minute warning was just that. A mushroom cloud spreading over the houses was always an expectation

As were random bombings by the IRA.

[often funded by the same Americans who now fear muslim terrorists]

Only 13 miles outside London, and regularly visiting the city centre, the threat of terrorist bomb was always in our thoughts.

Both threats, one immense, the other random, were real, distinct and omnipresent.

The other day I got to thinking of Al Qaeda and how this small band of terrorists has got so many millions of people across the world living in fear, and it just made me laugh. True, the attacks of 9/11/01 were horrific, but the real risk to most Americans today of being struck by an act of terrorism just pales into insignificance compared to the threat of nuclear annihilation that so recently hung over the world. Of course, Al Qaeda or any other disaffected terrorist cell, could detonate a nuclear bomb but, again, that is one bomb compared to mutually assured destruction.

My point, I think, is that our brains are wired for a threat level – of sabre-toothed tigers, etc. – that most everyone doesn’t face every day. But because our brains are wired to fear threat, we’ll automatically conflate any minor niggle into a major fear.

Unless we catch ourselves in the act of speaking, thinking or writing and remind ourselves of reality. If we can do that, we have a chance to grow happiness and fulfillment in our lives – or, to put it another way, find the ‘toward’ pathway.

So…

The next time you’re anxious, scared or feeling unsettled, pause and ask yourself: “What’s there to fear? How does it compare to a mortal threat?”

Once you’ve got it in perspective, ask yourself: “can I realistically do anything to control this threat?”

[that isn’t blindly lashing out at any muslim, because you fear some nutcases on the far fringes of islamic society]

And if the answer is no, then just let it go and live a full life. Most of the time, there is no danger, not really.

Go and live a ‘toward’ life.

Like we did when we were kids.

When certain death was only ever four minutes away.

When we didn’t even care which four minutes it might be.

Life is too short, and too valuable, to be wasted on ungrounded fears.

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