What Would You Do if You Weren't Afraid?

How fear may be a good (or bad) thing

Posted Nov 07, 2016

Ron Lieber, writer of the “Your Money” column for the New York Times, asked for the best question ever asked by or answered by a reader regarding money. Lieber’s top pick was, "What would you do if you weren’t afraid?"

It’s a terrific question not just about money but about how we live our lives. For it is fear that often stands in the way of harmonizing our values with our actions. There is the fear of not fitting in, of being ostracized, of disappointing others, of failure or even success.

Yet there are times when fear isn’t a hindrance but a good thing. It can keep inappropriate impulses under control and it can remind us that what other people think—and think about us—matters.

Aristotle looked at fear from a positive side. He examined courage, the lack of which is cowardice and the excess of which is foolhardiness. Alone, courage doesn’t mean much. It is how it is applied to particular situations that counts. Courage means having the strength to do the right thing under the right circumstances. Cowardice is not having the fortitude to carry out what should be done, while foolhardiness is taking an action when it shouldn’t have been. Not rescuing a drowning person when you have a lifeguard’s ability is cowardice; trying to rescue a drowning person when you don’t know how to swim is foolhardy.

There are fears that are irrational. One of mine is putting my head under water. There is a good explanation as why I have this fear—as a child I was held under water by thugs in a public pool. It keeps me from snorkeling but this is a very small thing. There is little incentive in overcoming it.

Big, irrational fears are phobias and it easy to see how most interfere with leading a productive life. Phobias hold people back and most people would rather not have them.

The balance between too much fear and not enough of it is the proper place to be most of the time. Courage needs to be put to good purposes. So the question, "what would you do if you weren’t afraid?," leads to another question and that is, "what do you want to do with your life and why do you think that is a good thing?"