Dialogue on Fear

“You don’t want to fight me,” said Bill with a sneer, “because you’re scared. You know I’ll pummel you.”

“Bill,” said Paul, “the only reason you want to fight me is because you yourself are frightened. You’re so frightened of spending even just one minute actually trying to think through an opposing position, so frightened that you’ll turn out, after all, to be nothing but the ignorant and stupid worm that you are, that you’ve turned to violence as a last resort in proving some kind of dominance over me.”

Bill laughed mockingly. “Paul,” he said, “it’s funny, though to be honest a little pathetic, to see how your fear finds expression in these bizarre conceptual circumlocutions. Don’t you see how your attempt to cast me as the fearful one is in fact just another expression of your own cowardice?”

“Oh Bill,” said Paul, shaking his head sadly, “when will you drop this charade? It’s clear that your fear is rooted so deep in you that cannot help but to condemn even my gentle act of pointing it out to you as motivated by some kind of cowardice. I’m just trying to tell you that you’re scared, scared of your own fear, and so scared that you can’t face the fact and instead accuse me of cowardice in turn.”

“Funny,” Bill replied, “I was just about to say the same of you, Paul. Isn’t it you who first attempted to undercut my suggestion to fight by claiming I made it only out of fear? So then after all it is you who are scared, not I. Please, just face the facts.” 

“Bill, my courage is honestly beyond question here. I’ve proven it time and again in any number of situations. I’ve saved children from burning buildings and fought in the trenches during the war. I even had the courage to go out and help the poor in my humanitarian work, and to speak my mind in the Senate, even when doing so could easily have lost me the upcoming election.”

“No offense, Paul, but those actions, as praiseworthy as they were, really only indicate how deep your fears run. Why did you save children from buildings if not out of your fear of what others would say if they saw you sitting idly by? Why did you speak your mind in the Senate if not out of fear of what you would think of yourself if you didn’t? Why did you help the poor if not out of the terror you felt at the sight of them, as they reminded you of what you could one day be? In each case your actions are the actions of a man utterly terrified by all around him, driven like a horse by the whip of his fears.”

“That’s ridiculous, Bill. I never felt scared in any of those situations.”

“Really? You never felt fear at running into the buildings to save those children? Either you are lying or else you really can’t call yourself brave, since to be brave you have to have some fear to overcome.”

“Well, of course I was a little scared running into the burning buildings and so on. But I was scared of the flames, not of what other people would say. I was scared because I made the brave decision – I didn’t make the brave decision out of fear.”

“Ok, if you say so. Though it strikes me as a little odd for you to have felt no fear at seeing a burning building and hearing the children screaming inside. If you felt no fear, then what made your decision to run into the building a brave one?”

“It was a brave decision because when I made it I decided to do something that would have scared a more cowardly person away. A coward would never have run into the building, the mere thought of it would have scared them. But, being the brave person that I am, decided to run in despite my fear.”

“So you felt the fear at the thought of running in, and overcame that fear when you actually ran in?”

“Exactly.”

“So you did feel fear, which only goes to prove my point. You’re a coward.”

“I was scared, Bill, I’ll admit that. But I’m not a coward because even though I was scared I still went into the building and saved the child. Bravery is not about not feeling fear, it’s about not giving in to that fear.”

“Ok, let’s say that I accept your ideas about bravery here. So, by your own admission, you were scared when you stood there in front of the burning building.”

“Yes.”

“And, according to you, what was scary to you was the thought of going into that building to save the child trapped within.”

“Exactly. And that’s the fear I overcame.”

“Not so fast. What I want to know is this: how do you know that it was precisely this thought that made you frightened? Isn’t it possible that really, that fear you felt was not about the burning building at all, since after all it couldn’t hurt you, standing as you were at a safe distance. Instead, the fear you felt was about the shame you would feel, how others would think less of you, if you didn’t go into that building and try to do what was right?”

“I know that’s not what the fear was about, Bill, because I was actually thinking about going into the building when I was scared. I’m not an idiot, I can tell what I’m scared of.”

“Sure, sure. But why were you even thinking about going into that building at all? Why else would you go in, if not because of the fears I’ve already mentioned?”

“Because it’s the right thing to do, Bill. Have you never done something simply because you know it to be right? If so, then you’re not just a coward, you’re a villain as well.”

“I am what I am, Paul, and I’m not ashamed of it. You, on the other hand, seem to be a whole mess of contradictions and obscure rationalizations. Let me ask you: how did you know this was the right thing to do? Did you do some quick utility calculations? Did you consider what would happen if everyone did what you were about to?”

“Bill, you know as well as I that if you’re faced with a situation like that you don’t sit around doing happiness math. You simply see it, and you know it in your bones – you need to save that child.”

“Oh, I agree, and I’d even say we ‘feel it in our bones’ almost all the time we are deciding what the right thing to do is. But don’t you see what you’re saying? You ‘felt’ it? What could you have felt other than your fear, kicking you in the direction it wants you to go?” 

“It wasn’t fear, Bill. It was my moral compass, pointing out to me the right course of action. You’d understand if you weren’t so amoral.”

“A moral compass? Where do you keep that, in your back pocket? I’ll have to buy one at the store.”

“You can’t buy it at the store, but maybe if you ask your mother she’ll give you one.”

Bill laughed. “Alright, fair enough. But I must say, it seems hard to distinguish the obscure divinations of a moral compass from the subtle prodding of a deep-seated fear. And if we can’t distinguish them, then it’s really just your word against mine as to whether you’re a coward or a hero.”

“It’s not hard at all Bill. When you know what the right thing to do is, that feeling you get when you know it, that feeling is different than the feeling of fear.” 

“I guess I just don’t trust my ability to make these distinctions among my feelings. Couldn’t that feeling of ‘knowing the right thing’ just be another kind of fear, a fear that we like and to which we give a special label, but ultimately the same thing – an attempt to avoid what we dislike, a fleeing in the face of pain?”

“I don’t think so, Bill. Surely you wouldn’t say I was fleeing pain when I ran into that fire? If anything I was running toward pain.”

“But away from the pain of those judgmental eyes, away from the lifelong shame of knowing you didn’t do what you could have for that child.”

“Well, certainly it’s true that in some sense every time we run toward something, we also run away from something else. So I guess you could say of any action that it is fleeing something. But does that mean that everything is motivated by fear? And if so, then are we all cowards? Surely that can’t be right. If I eat a chocolate bar, for example, you wouldn’t say that I’m a coward, fleeing in the face of my lack of chocolate. I simply wanted the chocolate and then ate it.”

“I agree that your example does make that interpretation implausible given the way that you set it up. But there are people, as we both know, who do eat chocolate out of fear – binge eaters, or some severely depressed people, for example. And we don’t even have to go as far as that to provide a more plausible story that casts you in the role of a frightened person. It is easy to imagine, for example, that when you eat chocolate, there is some inner sadness, some inner inadequacy you are trying to pull away from. Maybe you never had chocolate as a child or maybe you just don’t want to face your boredom. Or maybe you’re at a party and you’re scared of not seeming appreciative of your host. Either way, even this apparently innocent act can easily be seen as the act of a frightened man.”

“So you’re saying that we’re all cowards?”

“It’s starting to look that way. At least, it certainly seems as if saving children from burning buildings and doing all that other stuff you’re so proud of doesn’t mean you’re any braver than anyone else.”

“But look here, Bill. If it’s really true that everything we do is motivated by fear, so that we’re all really cowards at heart, then doesn’t that mean that every so-called ‘brave’ action ever done was actually a product of someone’s fears? And apart from the obvious absurdity of such a claim, doesn’t that mean that when we talk about brave acts and cowardly ones we aren’t in fact talking about a distinction that has anything to do with fear?”

“I don’t know, Paul, I’m not sure I understand you, to be honest. What do you mean exactly?”

“Well let me see if I can spell it out. First, lets say that you’re right and every action is motivated by fear. That means that the acts we call ‘brave’ and the acts we call ‘cowardly’ are, at bottom, both motivated by an attempt to avoid some undesirable fate. But then, the distinction between the brave and cowardly can’t be a matter of whether or not they’re motivated by fear, since they both share that quality equally.”

“Ah, I see. So you’re saying that bravery and cowardice have to be reunderstood, provided we accept the line of thought we’ve gone down so far.”

“Exactly.”

“But how could we understand them, if not by way of their relation to fear? We can’t, for example, say that the brave person is someone who controls their fears, while the coward is the opposite, since, as we’ve just noted, both types of people are equally controlled by their fears.”

“Yes, I’m not sure either. And the situation is even worse than just that, since we can’t even say it’s a matter of degree: they’re both controlled by their fears to the same degree. Fear makes puppets of both the brave and the cowardly.”

At that Bill laughed. “I see our discussion has put you in a poetic mood.”

“I was just scared you’d think me a Philistine if I didn’t make some kind of grand-sounding remark,” Paul said with a wink.

Bill chuckled again. And then, since every conversation has its pauses, there was a bit of a pause.

Thank you for reading! As always, if you enjoyed this, please feel free to share with your friends and family. And stay tuned for part 2, where we struggle bravely to re-understand the very nature of fear itself!

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