I tried to read The Gift of Fear, by Gavin De Becker. I only put it off for so long because I was scared of reading it. It sounded like too intense of a topic for me. I have relatively low emotional IQ, so I can’t always handle literature about real life topics that mire me. But if Kathleen Hanna cites it in her lyrics and includes it in her extensive bibliography, dammit, how can I keep saying “no?” If my super bestie who has to help me articulate all of my feelings to myself finds it to be one of her favorite books — as a queer, feminist, and family therapist — how long can I delay? Plus, as someone who has now shown, at least once, that I shouldn’t keep pushing myself into close proximity with at least one threatening person, it sounded pretty appealing to learn how to stop myself from throwing myself into risk despite warning signs that The Gift of Fear could have helped me recognize.
But I freaked out as soon as I opened it. I lost my shit and didn’t make it past the foreword and introduction. I casually started flipping through the first pages while nursing my toddler to sleep at bedtime. The beginning includes a taught description of how a woman was attacked and raped, but not murdered, because her fear propelled her away from the monster. The author asserts that she could have protected herself even better from the danger and violence had she paid attention to her instinct and intuition which are evolutionary gifts, meant to keep us from harm. If we locked all of our doors all of the time, if we catered to our discomfort of assistance from strangers, if we allowed ourselves to be vigilant all the time, we wouldn’t allow ourselves to be victims of danger as often.
(Ignore for a moment that this sounds an awful lot like blaming survivors for submitting to the bad behavior of others. Also momentarily ignore that most violence in any individual’s life comes either from their loved ones and acquaintances or from systemic and societal patterns, not from someone randomly crawling into your home through an open window.)
The violence in the Gift of Fear illustration sent me into the pit of despair and panic. Not only is it viscerally hard to read a story about attack on an unsuspecting person, but the shame I felt for giving my ex-partner so many chances to hurt me while I ignored or made excuse for his red flags of “DANGER!” riveted me to the mattress. Not even my 18mo human teddy bear who smells like bliss could keep my heartbeat and respirations from accelerating to a bird-like pace while I kicked myself for allowing and then re-experiencing moments of misery at the hands of my ex loved one. Rabbits have heart attacks in the face of this kind of woe.
(OMG, I really DO have post-traumatic stress.)
Now, I have very high anxiety in life in general, so, again, combined with a traumatic anecdote, it’s not unusual that I would find myself a little bit triggered. But it is a new experience to taste fear while reading a book about fear as a gift. Because I have spent a lifetime building effective tool sets to cope with my anxiety, I slowed my breathing, reminded myself that not all of my anxiety is realistic, and I shut that panic beast down. My tools didn’t stop me from night-sweating my stress into soggy pajamas and sheets, but I did manage to get a little bit of shut-eye and collect myself. But there is the crux of what I am about to say: that fear experience wasn’t a gift, it wasn’t protecting me, and I didn’t thrive because I listened to it. I pushed it out of the way and it its absence made my life better.
As someone with serious, neurobiological, chemical anxiety issues, in order to function as an adult, I have 100% had to learn that my fear is not rational, does not constitute the entirety of my intuition, and can seriously impeded my ability to participate and enjoy aspects of life that are both scary and then fun/educational/empowering/etc. The only reason that I could recover from reading a trigger about fear was because I have learned that my fear is not trustworthy.
It may sound like I just need to practice a little moderation and accept that some fear is useful and some fear should be ignored, but when you have had to literally force yourself to breath in the face of a earnest certainty that a bomb is certain to explode under a suburban community foot bridge with no history of any kind of violent risk factors, … success means completely and utterly ignoring instinct in order to discover that my fears were unrealistic. Please, for someone who struggles to decide which fears are valid and which are not, describe which of my concerns and hand washings are unrealistic “contamination issues” and which are sound nursing practices meant to curb the spread of everything from measles to a common cold. And if someone else has to tell me where the line of reason is, how is my feeling an instinctive, evolutionary benefit rather than my logic and statistical analysis?
Tell me how to decipher the difference between working through our discomfort of people who are different from ourselves and the willingness to stay married to someone who is not neurotypical (which lead to my mistreatment due to my excusing of basic lack of understanding of common perspective-taking and boundaries). Instruct me how to trust my evolutionary gift of nervousness without crossing the street every time a black man or poor person approaches. How can I feel like a strong, badass female who likes to take myself on solo hiking trips while catering to the suspicion that I am a prime target and I should be afraid? How do we expect children to learn how to be warm, loving community members if they are too afraid to talk to the homeless, schizophrenic, brown, black, poor, and disabled members of society who suddenly classify as “stranger danger” while a white grandmother that we’ve never met can comfortably chat them up, physically fawn over them, and ask super personal questions?
I am not utterly down with the concept of fear as a gift. It was not a gift that trauma triggered terror while I was reading. My neurobiology that incorrectly indicates doom is not a gift. The “intuition” that makes me nervous about extending the same smile to “strangers” of different races, classes, and abilities as to little, white, old ladies is not a charming present that I wish to open or encourage for purchase by others. The fear of black men that led a police officer to shoot and kill a fleeing black man was certainly primal, but it was not in any way a benefit to either that cop or to society. That fear was a mistake that could have been corrected by questioning our fears more generally and regularly.
I like hiking by myself and walking home after dark. I like interacting with different people in my community. I like walking under foot bridges in well-lit suburban locations that have no risk factors for violence. I like seeing other people walking on the sidewalk without wondering if they themselves are a risk factor. I like leaning in to this fear and recognizing it as an impediment to my adventures and enjoyment of social and civic functioning.
However, perhaps I need to recover from my fearful traumas partially by recognizing that I should have listened to normative reasons for fear more often. Maybe I could have protected myself from much maltreatment by not accepting the adventurous and unusual behaviors of a loved one with atypical neurobiology. It is very possible that The Gift of Fear would teach me these nuances and articulately lay out how to use fear as a tool that doesn’t divide different facets of society. But I am too scared to read it. Should I lean in and ignore that fear in order to learn and read, or is my terror a gift that I should listen to? I’m keeping the receipt.