Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

When Fear Makes People Fierce

Suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous caution

As the poison-tipped arrows whiz past, you crawl toward the gully that winds toward the fortressed camp. You hope the captor won’t see you, or at least that his arrows won’t find you in the gully.

There’s still the fence to climb.  His arrows will find their mark there, arrows not deadly but toxic, piercing and leaving welts. Whatever. You’re on a rescue mission. The captor’s victim is terrified and you’re his only hope.  

You squint at the fence (when was the last time you climbed one?), but maybe when you get to it you’ll find passage underneath it. 

Hands finally on the fence, you’ve only a few more welts flaring up.  You start digging.  Damn, but the fence is buried deep! No matter how far you dig the cyclone wire is there.

Never mind. You’ll climb.  As you do, at least some of the arrows hit the fence instead of you.   But then the captor electrifies the whole span.  Still, you’re close enough to the top, that you can use the shock to tip and heave yourself over its barbed wire crown falling hard, but camp side.

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You race the final distance, the arrows now filling the air. You finally arrive and discover no victim or rather, no captor--actually they’re one and the same, a terrified bowman, shooting arrows as you come to save him from himself.

Fear turned fierce maybe the hardest psychological problem you’ll ever encounter.  And you will encounter it, since very few of us merely quake when we feel insecure.  We’re much more likely to act mean, nasty, defensive, tough, icy, domineering, biting, vicious--anything to defend against access to our fearful hearts. Fear makes us reach for armaments and armor.  

It puts you in quite the bind, knowing that deep down, we’re afraid, as in need of your gentle kindness as a lost and timid kitten.  So you reach out, and suddenly the kitten’s a vicious tiger taking nasty bites out of you.  So you step back and the kitten whimpers, drawing you back in.

When we become terrified terrors, there’s no talking to us. Instead you’ll be talking to our slick PR agents, formulaic spin doctors who insist that we’re right about everything, entirely consistent, no flies on us.

Or you’ll be talking to our paranoid, body-guard ninjas, throwing ninja stars at anything, real or phantom that looks like a threat to our shaky sense of self worth. 

Talking to a wall would be easier.  Talking to us is more like talking to a turret.  

One thing about your response:  It will be wrong.  No matter what you try, it won’t succeed. 

Try talking us down from our turret with reasoned arguments and you’ll get unreasoned rejection, denial and deflection, dressed up as reason counseling you against your unreasonableness. 

Try calming us with love, reassurance, kindness, and flattery and we’ll take it as vindication for our position and step up our campaign of self-defense. 

Try getting us to admit our fear and you’ll get an earful about how nothing could be further from the truth.

Try confronting us firmly or sternly and we’ll throw the book at you.  If we’re fearful it’s all because you’re confrontational.  If only you’d be more reasonable and compassionate. 

If you find yourself dealing over and over with one of us, consistently hair-trigger, sharp attacking and long sustaining in our fear-driven bullet-spraying self-defense, there’s only one option that will work.

Shut ears, eyes and mouth, turn on your heals and get out of firing range.  We’ll shoot at you for not having the decency to “stay and talk.”  Don’t listen.

And if, as one of us, you are the one in the turret, expect that we’ll get out of firing range too, if we can. 

We can’t always.  Your child could be one of these terrified terrors, your parent or your spouse, your boss, your colleague, your nation’s dictator.  If so, I have no advice to offer. Only sympathy.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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