What should we think about fear? Maybe Aristotle can guide us in the way he assessed the very different, but often related, emotion of anger. He believed the value of this powerful state of mind and heart could be revealed by such questions as: Toward what or whom? In what measure? For how long? And to what end? We should probably ask the same questions about any instance of fear. When there are real dangers, fear is rational. And it can be reasonable for us to allow it sometimes to call the shots, determining our thoughts and actions at a particular moment, or in a certain fraught situation, and thus guiding our behavior then and there. But this should not be a common occurrence. And there could be a better alternative.
A courageous person never lets fear unhinge him or her and always seeks to do the right thing, regardless of any dangers that might loom and threaten. Sometimes, that means listening to fear and accepting its guidance to pause, or stop, or retreat, or avoid. There are times when it's wise to be moved by fear. But in modern life, this emotion tends to intrude into our thoughts and feelings much more often than its help is needed. Practical wisdom, or prudence, demands that we respect a wide range of values in our actions, and those values encompass proper concerns for our own health and self preservation, as well as for those we love, and even to consider and protect a positive reputation among at least the wise in our communities. But fear is often a bully in its warnings that we may lose what we value, and is as subtle as any insidious force can be.
Fear has a thousand faces. It quite often presents itself as something other than what it is—as perhaps a common sense and reasonable desire for safety, or security, or comfort, or simply for what's known, as distinct from what might be clearly uncertain and unknown. It can make itself look like altruism, or moderation, or sheer rationality, and even when it's the polar opposite of these things.
I've let fear influence my choices far too often in life. But I never recognized it at the time. I was a master of self-deception. And, whether I know you well or not, I can imagine that you are, too. We all have this unfortunate skill. We can rationalize almost anything. And the smarter we are, the more convincing we can be, not only to others, but to ourselves. We allow fear to mask itself as a proper concern for another person, or as the voice of reason, when it's not that at all. And we need to learn the form of discernment, a component of wisdom that allows us to spot our emotions and motivations for what they are, rather than being moved around by what they appear to be. It's almost as if negative emotions can be illusionist shape-shifters and masters of disguise. Part of the Platonic program of stripping away illusions and getting beyond appearances means unmasking them and refusing them illegitimate power.
Fear can present itself as any reasonable person's primary concern. After all, what's more important than survival, it asks us. Well, perhaps a lot. I've come to see fear as being, at best, a rare and secondary motivator along the course of an imperfect life. Yes, it can be helpful. And for that we should thank it. By I now refuse to allow it to call the shots as often as it would like. I'll feel its cousin anxiety arise within me, but nowadays I'll spot it, and question its validity in the moment or the situation, and dismiss it from my heart and mind when it's counterproductive, or in other ways uncalled for. I hope you will, too.
Salespeople are trained in some organizations to act on the fact that most people are much more motivated by a fear of loss than by a desire of gain. And I have a corresponding suggestion: We should not be among those fearful people, and thus, by our own independence, diminish their numbers. No one has ever attained excellence or greatness by following a path of fear. No one ever made his or her best contribution to the world from a place of fear.
It's often been said: Two forces motivate us—love and fear. I recommend love. It's a vastly better guide, overall, than fear. It can give us the true safety that fear always pretends to care about, and yet without the illusions, constraints and deceptions of fear. Love, understood properly and done right, should be our prime mover and most consulted guide.
I think of love here in the deepest spiritual sense, and very differently from the popular understanding—not as an emotion at its core, but as a perspective and commitment to certain positive values, and to the good of all souls. Love is, on this perspective, the main application of wisdom, which is both love's fount and guide. If you value the right things, and embrace those values properly, if you have the right perspectives and insights, you don't need the goad of visceral emotions like fear or anger to motivate proper action. Love wins over all.
On this view, fear is merely a substitute motivator for those who have not fully developed love. And the tug of this pretender can misfire frequently and actually keep us away from the path of what we ought to do. Sometimes, the visceral electric shock of the snake at your feet or the sound in the night simply prevents the right exercise of the mind and the quick action you need. That's why the quintessential hero has a calm mind and a good heart. She does what needs to be done not from fear but love.
And in the end, I think that the deepest spiritual love is a mark of true courage. That's why we hesitate ever to attribute this virtue to suicide bombers or any terrorists, despite the actions that intentionally take them to danger and death. Their fanaticism may mimic courage and produce a counterfeit that's convincing in the minds of their fellow fanatics, but that's because they fail to understand the nature of genuine courage, by their blindness to true love. Any of us, in lesser ways, can make the same mistake. Love puts fear in its proper place. And as the Gospel says, perfect love casts out fear. When love is perfected, this alternative motivator is not needed in any way. It’s left behind. And this is a state of being for us all to hope for and to seek to attain.