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Fear of the Unknown

To him who is in fear everything rustles. –Sophocles 

Last week, I was checking on some farm equipment before the cold snap arrived. I turned the key on one machine and heard the dreaded click of a dead battery, which I promptly began to remove for charging or replacement. As it happens, I recently got one of those new-fangled watches that vibrates when I get a notification on my phone, and it vibrated at the exact moment that I touched the battery cable. I thought the battery shocked me, so I jumped and let go of the cable. I had to laugh at myself when I realized it was only my watch buzzing. Part of my brain must have feared a shock, even though that would have been very unusual. How did the vibration scare me when there was nothing to fear? The only answer I could come up with was that it was unexpected.

   I do not invest much time in watching television (I admit to watching I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show more than anything), but there is a series called Special Forces: World's Toughest Test that I have watched. It is entertaining because the challenges mimic special forces military training and are both mentally and physically demanding. Individuals who make it to the end undergo simulated capture and interrogation. "Recruits” may voluntarily withdraw themselves at any time during the course. It is quite a window into human behavior. Participants willingly show up, stating that they want to be tested and prove themselves, see what they are made of, overcome fears, and learn something about themselves, only to withdraw within hours. Many are confident going in, but the unexpected nature of the training takes a toll on them. The fear of the unknown overcomes them. I always wonder what I would do in those scenarios and find myself thinking, “What would the participants do if withdrawal was not an option?” 

   Lately, I have been reading true stories of people in perilous situations who managed to act with clear heads. In most of those cases, the consequences were life or death in a literal sense. Fear can be momentary or sustained, and how we deal with something that scares us momentarily can differ vastly from how we deal with sustained exposure to fear. It is curious that one can manage to survive in the face of momentary fear, yet struggle greatly when confronted with long-term fear. It is my opinion that the unexpected plays a significant role in both cases. There is a quote attributed to Julius Ceasar that goes, “No one is so brave that he is not disturbed by something unexpected.” I think it is certainly relevant here. It is the unexpected that often strikes the greatest fear in us, and no one is immune to that (not even Julius Ceasar). 

   Over the holidays, I listened to a book called How to Know a Person by David Brooks (I recommend). One of the questions in the book was, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” It caused me to think seriously about fear in a bigger sense, but it also led me to consider what I am afraid of and how it may be holding me back. As the New Year begins, I invite each of you to do the same. May we all manage our fears as best we can, and if you happen to survive a faux electrocution like I did, make sure you take time to laugh at yourself about it.

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