Nov 21, 2010

Fear Itself

I'm not a pet guy. My wife collects animals. I tolerate them. Sometimes, I enjoy them, but I wouldn't go out of my way to have a pet. Even a fish, except for catfish because I love catfish and black beans. So, we have a dog, a cat, and six or seven birds. It's a busy household.

Our cat, Spike, is a brave soul. He's mostly an inside cat, but he gets out in the yard to climb trees, catch and kill mice and voles, and pester the neighbor's cat. Spike is particularly unusual in that he likes to be wet. You can pet him when your hands are wet and he appreciates the attention. He likes to explore the bathtub after I take a shower. Sometimes he sticks his head into the curtains while I'm taking a shower. Since he was a kitten, he has jumped into the tub right after anyone has used it and he often rolls around getting himself wet. He knows how the shower works. He knows someone could turn it back on and he'd get soaked. He's pretty sure that won't happen. Spike is totally unafraid of things he believes are unlikely to happen. I like that quality, a lot.

Not that many people are capable of that. In fact, people are afraid of the damnedest things. When the Twin Towers were bombed, my neighbor's wife freaked out. She'd never traveled anywhere, never even went into downtown St. Paul, but she became convinced the world had changed and she was at risk. Since 2001, she rarely leaves her house for anything. An engineer friend is terrified of flying. Always has been. He's been traveling by commercial airline for almost 35 years, hundreds of trips without an incident. Every time he gets in a plane, it's white knuckle time. His paranoia would be more understandable if he wasn't a roller coaster fanatic. He's traveled all over the country to ride every whacked-out roller coaster he can find. He's especially fond of the wooden versions of the damn things. Once, when we were 35,000 feet over the Great Plains, I suggested that if the plane did go down it would be the coolest roller coaster ride he ever took. He almost squeezed the arm rests off of his seat and didn't let go until we were parked. Another friend is convinced that I ride my 250, instead of my 650 road bike, because I believe it's safer. He can't imagine that it is quicker or more fun. He is a motorcycle owner who puts about 250 miles/year on his bike and believes the "freeway is a deathtrap" for motorcycle commuters.

Neither of these people are anywhere near as likely to be harmed by terrorists or falling airplanes or cell phone-crazed commuters as my wife's cat is of getting soaked in the shower; especially if my grandson has anything to say about it. Those humans are freaked out and terrified while the cat is happy with his odds. One person's fear is incapacitating. The other has a significant portion of his life wreaked. The last owns a piece of garage candy he's afraid to play with. Fear  keeps us from enjoying our lives, from doing what we want to do, from living where we want to live, from being who we are. Roosevelt said "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."

True, but somehow not all that helpful. At least in my case, I need something a little more specific to work on, in regards to controlling fear. In every corner, there is at least one spot where rider control is on the edge. Even on a simple, in-town, residential-street turn there are opportunities for loss of control: sand or gravel at the worst possible place, crumbling asphalt that choses the moment you arrive to collapse, traffic, unpredictable pedestrians, falling space rubble, and other motorcyclists picking the wrong moment to demonstrate their "skills." Those butt-clenching moments are what keep you alert, or convince you that motorcycling is unnecessarily dangerous. What you do with fear determines who you are, who you can be, what you can do, and how long you are going to live.

Research into the human fear response has provided a little insight into how our over-sized, underused brains work. Many people with a low capacity for actual danger are horror movie fans, where you get "the gratification of real fear without any of the danger." People watch serial killer movies, listen to Glenn Beck, and ride roller coasters to get the psychological kick from artificially induced fear without any personal risk (except on the carnival roller coasters, which are installed and maintained by drugged-out grade-school dropouts). The spillover between the areas of your brain that interprets pleasure and fear is often significant. On the other hand, an under-developed or segmented amygdala or  nucleus accumbens could make you completely fearless even in situations where you are at extreme risk.

I suppose there is a reasonable balance between fear and fearlessness. At this point in my life, I could do with a little more immunity to fear. There are places I'd like to go that pose more risk than I'm comfortable taking. People go to those places, people live in those places, so my fear is not reasonably founded. I'm not afraid of dying, but I am damn nervous about getting hurt. If I could, I would have a good bit of that part of my brain trimmed away so I could get on with an adventure or two.

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