Fear is defined as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” It’s a survival mechanism. Fear is designed to trigger the fight-or-flight response in animals. Fear is felt. Adrenaline is released into the body. The body then has the ability to act strongly or quickly. Fight hard or run fast.
I’ve felt fear many times in my life. When cornered at a fair by a fellow high school student who was adamant about going to blows with me, I felt fear and fought back hard. How it turned out is debatable. I concede that I got my ass kicked. My friends kept telling me that they were impressed that I didn’t get knocked out and was still standing at the end. Little victories, I guess. In grade school, when I was approached by Steve and his group of elementary bullies, I briefly tried standing up for myself by swinging the only kick I had learned in a Tae Kwon Do class I visited one time. After realizing that was the only move I had, we all came back to reality. Flight took over and I ran for my life. While bailing hay with my father in my teens, I picked up a bail and discovered a large black snake packed inside, the top half of its body sticking out and flipping directly in front of my face. Fight and flight worked together on that one. The strength with which I hurled the beast and his grass body cast was comparable to any feat of Hercules. The speed with which I ran the other direction while squealing was not. I know my father seemed to enjoy it. Looking back from the half-mile I had just run in 3.7 seconds, I very distinctly made out my dad doubled over, trying to catch his breath between the guffaws.
Hundreds of thousands of academic papers have been written on fight-or-flight. Scientists agree that these are the two responses to fear. This is survival instinct. We stand and fight, or we run away. Charge toward a cat. It will flee. Corner that cat. God help you. Then what of the opossum? Sure, the ugly little bastards have a terrifying hiss that is made worse by their beady, soulless eyes, but they’re also known to simply roll over and play dead. “Playing” dead might not be the correct term. The stress of confrontation sends their bodies into shock and causes a comatose state. They shut down.
It is this reaction to fear that too many of us struggle with in our lives, myself included. I’m not referring to those physical threats we perceive. Although, if you saw Taylor Swift’s response on Ellen, you might argue against that. I’m talking about the existential fear of failure.
It usually starts with a small, valid fear. Then it evolves into something altogether crippling. I watched it happen to my daughter this summer. In one of her early-season softball practices, she was hit by the ball three times. One of those hits left a pretty solid bruise. Naturally, she developed a fear of the ball. When at bat, her flight response kicked in and she would jump away from the pitches. She stood far away from the plate to avoid being hit. The problem is that good pitches were unreachable to her, even if she did take a swing, which was rare. When swinging, the effort was minimal. Thus, she was being struck out. Being struck out made her feel that she was letting down her team. That feeling made her doubt herself. A few weeks ago, I took her to the batting cages to practice in an environment where she didn’t have to worry about being hit by the ball. Unfortunately, I wasn’t thinking about her having open-toed shoes on and we weren’t able to use them. On our way back to the car, she told me that she was relieved because now she wouldn’t have to “embarrass herself by not hitting the ball.” I took her back today. We worked on her stance and her swing. Her first round, she hit a few. But I watched her heart sink with every missed pitch and my encouragement fell on deaf ears. Fear led to fear of failure. It took over. She had given up. She had shut down.
To watch it was heart-breaking.
But we’ll practice more. She’ll fail more. She’ll feel that failure like a shadow following her around. Though, if failure is shadow, success is the light. And shadows only exist if light is around the corner.