Like many people, I have a number of fears. I am not a big fan of climbing mountains (too high!) or the idea of swimming in deep ocean waters (too low!). And sometimes I feel as if my fears — rational as they may seem in my head — make me less of an adult, less capable, less fully realized as a human being.
But while it’s easy enough to cross scaling Annapurna off my list, I am also afraid of driving a car. As a result, I haven’t gotten behind the wheel since President Obama’s first term in the White House. A thing that your average person is happy, or at least willing, to do is something I have found endless excuses to avoid for the last decade.
I am not alone, of course, in my fright and my dislike of myself for being this way. Life as we know it today offers endless sources of fear. Many of us are afraid of the future, of the past, of serial killers, sex offenders, grifters, con artists and, for plenty of people of a certain generation, quicksand.
And we are always trying to overcome those fears, because that’s what fears are for — to be tamed, conquered, slain. Or, at least that’s what American culture tells us. This is how we move on and move up in our lives. It is also, we are told, what makes us good, admirable, worthwhile people. Bravery beats cowardice any day, and triumphing over fear is one way to make it to the podium.
I’ve kind of had it with this idea, though. Would I be improved by climbing into the driver’s seat and moving the car into drive despite my abject and overwhelming terror? If I do the thing I’m terrified of, is that really such a great accomplishment if all I’ve achieved is simply making myself miserable?
It does mean, I will admit, that I’ve given into my fear. But that’s what’s supposed to happen. Fear helps us survive, after all. And it can’t do its job if we don’t listen to it. “Fear is a highly adaptive emotion that alerts us to potential dangers in our environment so we can protect ourselves,” Bethany Teachman, a researcher at the University of Virginia with a focus on anxiety disorders, told me in an email. “It serves as an essential alarm system to help keep us safe and triggers us to avoid or escape threatening situations.”
Martin Antony, professor of psychology at Toronto Metropolitan University and co-author of “The Anti-Anxiety Program,” compared fear to pain. People who don’t listen to fear are like those who might risk injury if they don’t feel the sensation of pain. “Fear has that same kind of function,” he told me.
In other words, fear is a crucial tool in our endless quest to stay alive. Looking at it that way, a lot of my biggest fears make sense. Climbing Annapurna is an incredibly dangerous thing to do: There is about a 30 percent fatality rate among people attempting to reach its summit. Descending into the deepest parts of our oceans is also pretty risky. So if I overcame my fears and set out for Annapurna’s peak or went diving among deepwater stingrays, some might call that impressive. I’d call it foolish.
But what about my fear of driving?
Having a fear of driving seems simultaneously irrational and incredibly sensible — because while the majority of Americans drive frequently (at least a few times a week), road traffic crashes are a leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 54. So who’s the irrational one now?
It turns out that the rationality of my fears doesn’t matter. Antony told me that his biggest questions for people working through their fears aren’t whether the fear makes sense, it’s whether the fear is excessive or unreasonable. Is it in proportion to the actual threat? And does the fear actually matter in the person’s daily life?
“I could be terrified of snakes,” he said, “but if I never see snakes, and I don’t avoid anything because it’s not an issue in my life, then who cares?”
Regrettably, not driving does present an actual issue in my life. I would like to be able to drive places. And I would like to do so without the overwhelming fear that my death, and the deaths of my passengers, is imminent.
Antony pointed out that that feeling isn’t actually even fear, which is centered on an immediate threat (a bear, say, is coming straight at you and hasn’t had lunch). What I’m experiencing instead is anxiety, which centers on a future threat (a bear could, at some time, some day, come straight at you having had no lunch.) And Teachman agreed, saying that while fear can be helpful, anxiety isn’t.
She said that with anxiety, “We start having a lot of false alarms so we are thinking situations are dangerous that are actually safe, and so we start avoiding more than we should.” Or, in the case of driving, safe enough.
I still think that I’m right to be scared to drive, but unfortunately, giving in to this feeling does limit my life — and leading a limited life sounds scarier than even driving a car does. The smart thing to do is to recognize that those horrifying scenarios I imagine that render me a mere memory to my loved ones are perhaps not imminent or likely. I think I can do this. And if you want to call me brave, I won’t stop you.