What Are You Afraid Of?


| January-February 2009



This article was published with  Fear Itself , which explores fear culture and exhorts us to challenge the things that scare us silly.

In its Fall 2008 issue, the Berkeley-based lit magazine Threepenny Review published a symposium on fear. Here are our three favorite moments.

If I’m tempted to boast that I have no fear that is not because I am fearless by nature, more that I have almost never found myself in situations in which I have had any need of fear. . . . I’ve had no experience of loss. My parents are both in their 80s and still going strong. Also, since I don’t have—and never want to have—any children, I am not prey to the parental terror that they will be snatched away (by pedophiles, illness, or accident) without warning. . . . So there’s been no grief in my life, only a massive amount of irritation, and I suspect there is a relation between this and living without fear. To put it simply, I’ve just been too childishly pissed off, frustrated, and enraged to feel fear. —Geoff Dyer, British author of But Beautiful, among other books

By the last years of the ’90s, the bull market was no longer propelled by professional investors. It was fueled by latecomers like me, most of whom had never before invested in the stock market. By 2000 more than half of American families had finally taken the plunge. Why had so many us waited so long? Out of fear. Before then, we had been afraid to gamble our savings on Wall Street. We got into the stock market, slowly and reluctantly, because by the end of the ’90s the pros had made so much money we feared we’d feel like chumps if we didn’t take a chance. Yet by 2000 the pros had stopped investing; some were even bailing out. We were the last to know. The market tanked and we lost piles of money. We were chumps anyway. —Robert Reich, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and former U.S. secretary of labor

Fear is an indispensable emotion, rooted in an instinct for self-preservation, a nose for danger. Think of the springy wariness of cats, ever watchful. Fear can also be entirely rational. German Jews who dismissed Hitler as a vulgar buffoon were more likely to be trapped at home than to get out. Adolescent boys take ridiculous risks because their bodies have matured faster than their brains. But fear is not the same as anxiety. Fear is directed toward a real object, the menace of an actual situation. Anxiety is a free-floating malaise in search of an object, always in excess of any genuine threat or danger. Fears can be mastered; anxiety needs to be analyzed. —Morris Dickstein, writer and literary critic