I’ve been going through TED withdrawal. I remedied that this morning by making time for the things that make me think further, and TED Talks certainly do that.
NOTE: If you click on the link below to watch the TED Talk yourself, don’t forget to enable the captions in the language of your choice. Do this by resting your cursor on the screen, causing the gray bar to appear to the right of the pause symbol, in order to turn the captioning on. You can also read the transcript of the video by clicking on the red-lettered “Show transcript” button located below the righthand side of the video screen.
This morning’s Talk, entitled “What fear can teach us”, by author Karen Thompson Walker, began with a story that took place in 1819, about twenty American sailors who became shipwrecked after their whaling vessel was struck by a sperm whale and sank. The twenty sought refuge in three small whaleboats and began weighing their options, making and delaying decisions based on their fears.
You’ll have to watch the TED Talk for yourself to see how the story turns out, but you can well imagine if you’ve read “Moby Dick”, as this story was later used by Herman Melville as research for his book. Mr. Melville speculated, had these men made an immediate decision to steer straight for Tahiti, the closest land mass, instead of letting their dread decide their fate, they might well have avoided their sufferings.
What I will share are some of the interesting things that the author had to say about fear:
“We all know what it’s like to be afraid. We know how fear feels, but I’m not sure we spend enough time thinking about what our fears mean.
As we grow up, we’re often encouraged to think of fear as a weakness, just another childish thing to discard like baby teeth or roller skates. It’s something we fight. It’s something we overcome. But what if we looked at fear in a fresh way? What if we thought of fear as an amazing act of the imagination, something that can be as profound and insightful as storytelling itself?
Because that’s really what fear is, if you think about it. It’s a kind of unintentional storytelling that we are all born knowing how to do. And fears and storytelling have the same components. They have the same architecture. Like all stories, fears have characters. In our fears, the characters are us. Fears also have plots. They have beginnings and middles and ends. Our fears also tend to contain imagery that can be every bit as vivid as what you might find in the pages of a novel. Fears also have suspense. Our fears provoke in us a very similar form of suspense. Just like all great stories, our fears focus our attention on a question that is as important in life as it is in literature: What will happen next? In other words, our fears make us think about the future.
…a big part of writing fiction is learning to predict how one event in a story will affect all the other events, and fear works in that same way. In fear, just like in fiction, one thing always leads to another.
So if we think of our fears as more than just fears but as stories, we should think of ourselves as the authors of those stories. But just as importantly, we need to think of ourselves as the readers of our fears, and how we choose to read our fears can have a profound effect on our lives.
…how can we tell the difference between the fears worth listening to and all the others? The novelist Vladimir Nabokov said that the best reader has a combination of two very different temperaments, the artistic and the scientific. A good reader has an artist’s passion, a willingness to get caught up in the story, but just as importantly, the readers also needs the coolness of judgment of a scientist, which acts to temper and complicate the reader’s intuitive reactions to the story.
And maybe if we all tried to read our fears, we too would be less often swayed by the most salacious among them. Just as the most nuanced stories in literature are often the richest, so too might our subtlest fears be the truest. Read in the right way, our fears are an amazing gift of the imagination, a kind of everyday clairvoyance, a way of glimpsing what might be the future when there’s still time to influence how that future will play out. Properly read, our fears can offer us something as precious as our favorite works of literature: a little wisdom, a bit of insight and a version of that most elusive thing — the truth.”
I’ve been called brave, and someone even called me fearless once, but I’m not so sure that either is true. What is true is that I’m good at looking for the meaning in fear and the story worth telling. How and why I know how to do this probably isn’t interesting to anyone but me, so I’ll spare you the details and just say that on a daily basis, for most of my life, I witnessed someone close to me who let crippling fear limit their life, and being a keen observer, I learned that fear isn’t always necessary, one can choose whether a situation warrants fear, irrational fear is unhealthy, and fear can be sensible and useful.
Hearing loss is scary, and once the life you know and love undergoes an unexpected and unwanted change the first reaction is fear. I’ve experienced this over and over throughout my life with progressive hearing loss. Each new level of not hearing causes me to be fearful, wondering how I’ll cope, remain independent, and able to communicate.
I had some wasted years by not applying all I learned about fear to my hearing loss, but once I let it, fear wrote the story of my most successful coping strategy: I take a situation where I’ve floundered, one that went so bad that I’m fearful just thinking about the next time a similar thing will happen, and I look for the meaning in the experience. I analyze why I panicked, think about how I could have handled the situation better, and what I might try the next time when something similarly frightening happens. Then, instead of waiting for that situation to arise, I create it. I put myself in the very situation that made me afraid.
I like to think of it as taking myself on a field trip or a conducting a scientific study, because when I place myself in an uncomfortable situation in the name of research, it allows me to take things less personally and to think critically about it. Also, by controlling the timing of the situation, I can choose a day and time when I’m in the best frame of mind to deal with it. I’ve done this with solo travel, both domestic and international, by experimenting with the best way to ask for accommodation and how to interact with airline and airport staff to get results. I did an extensive field trip when I was working out how, when, and if I needed to inform others about my hearing loss. What labels (hard of hearing, hearing impaired, deaf ) work best, and what’s the best way to ask for what I need.
Granted, some fears aren’t so manageable, but many are and we can learn how to use what we fear to our benefit. Just as the shipwrecked sailors had a choice, we can choose what our fear provides, something profound and insightful, an “amazing gift of the imagination, a kind of everyday clairvoyance, a way of glimpsing what might be the future when there’s still time to influence how that future will play out”, or a more dramatic and irrational story, one that’s the most “lurid” and “vivid” and causes us to use poor judgment or limit ourself.
When you look at your fear in a fresh way and you read it with the balance of an artist’s passion and clear judgment, then you have the presence of mind to choose what happens next and to change your future.
Field trip anyone?