What Are You Afraid Of?

This article was published withFear 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 magazineThreepenny 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

Paul Zimmer is a contributing editor of the venerableGettysburg Review. His essay “Practicing for Doomsday,” from which this passage is excerpted, appeared in the journal’s Autumn 2008 issue.

There it was like a letter bomb in our mailbox. I had just flunked out of college after a year and was trying to think of what I would do next, how to make a little money and regain my head. Almost immediately my military draft notice arrived. I was a clueless 19-year-old boy, but at least I was able to recognize a major crisis when I saw one.

With great misgivings, I reported for service. Immediately after I had finished regular basic training, I was assigned to two additional months of pitiless advanced infantry training. When I was at last a lethal professional killer, they designated me with a few hundred other soldiers to serve in Nevada as an atomic guinea pig, experiencing nuclear explosions in open trenches near ground zero.

I was very well aware of what the bombs had done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki a decade before. Even to a rosy-cheeked kid, this seemed to be a desperate drill.

That spring, groveling in slits near the explosions, we witnessed eight detonations in the desert. Several times these trenches caved in on us, and we were buried alive. Finally, when we had clawed out of our living graves and stood stupefied under the infernal mushrooms, the officers ordered us to advance toward ground zero.

It is hard to think of what we saw. I was a kid. Reality had an off-and-on switch. For 30 or more years, I thought rarely about this experience. I was a writer but never wrote about it. I never talked about it to my family or friends.

But I remember my fear.

I remember my buddies groaning and sucking air, choking on the earth that entombed us. I remember blinded, maimed desert animals and birds pitching against our boots as we walked through blasted yucca and cactus toward the fire. Smashed artillery and tanks. Flattened “doomtowns” built by the Atomic Energy Commission and populated by mannequins, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sundered and melted grotesquely by the fire. Automobiles and trucks crumpled and tossed like paper wads. Large dogs and horses mangled on their tethers. Burning bushes everywhere.

Matrix is a Canadian magazine of essays, fiction, poems, and reviews. Writer Lindsay Tipping’s essay “Bad Science” (excerpted below) is from issue #80: Gallows Humor.

Do you ever get the feeling that scientists are just fucking with us? I mean, pasteurization and ibuprofen are pretty cool, but some of the other stuff they get up to, I mean, really? Fearless mice, for instance. How are they necessary? I mean, it sucks for the mice. Sure, they get to walk around all cocky for a day or two but then they get eaten or run over or shot by some mean-streaked kid with a BB gun. Fear is their one advantage. Who are we to take it away?

I mean, we get all this anti-fear propaganda but maybe fear isn’t such a bad thing after all. I was fearless for a while. I refused to give in to my doubts and paranoia. And look how well that turned out. Where was science when I was getting the shit kicked out of me by love? Off breeding glowing dogs or talking fish perhaps. Definitely not watching my back. Screw you, science, you’re not gonna take my instincts away. I’ve seen these fearless animals. Their vapid eyes and swaggers. Marching up to the enemy, mouthing off and cuddling. How is that an evolutionary advance? Well, I’m not gonna be one of your little experiments anymore. I’m pushing my fears deeper inside. I’m listening to them at all times. I see danger and pain everywhere. I’m so safe, I’m never gonna die.

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