Emotional Education Series Part I: The Purpose of Fear

by Jake Wiskerchen

“Even death is not to be feared by one who has lived wisely.” Buddha

All emotions have an adaptive function, that is, they serve to inform us of what our environment is doing. Historically, even the ancient cavemen had the same 10 discrete emotions that we do today; fear sadness, anger, excitement, joy shame, guilt, disgust, contempt, and surprise.

Fear was used to tell humans that a threat was present. For example, if prehistoric man (or woman) saw a mammoth or saber-toothed tiger nearby, fear is what told him to get away. These days, fear serves the same purpose, although in 2015 America the physical threat is somewhat diminished from natural threats, we still do have some in existence; terrorism, road rage, surgery, etc.

Because of this relative safety in today's society, why then do we have so much fear? The anxiety with which so many people struggle is often rooted in fear, but if not physical threats to self or others...fear of what?

As we go through life, we absorb information from our parents, teachers, clergy, media, bosses, friends, and all sorts of other influences that eventually comprises our belief systems. If left unquestioned, these beliefs and ideas can become intertwined with our identities and seem to be virtually synonymous with who we are, rather than just something that we think. Then, when someone challenges an idea or a belief, it seems like they're challenging us as individuals. This type of challenge provokes the same ancient fear in our brains that we experience when facing real, actual danger. As such, we respond with an emotional, defensive reaction - just like if we see a mountain lion while hiking - instead of a reason-based response, such as in an intellectual dialogue.

If we can learn to separate our thoughts from our feelings, we can do a better job not only of communicating to others, but also of receiving communication from others. We can also learn to be at peace in our own lives, too, without excessive worry about things we cannot control. If you struggle with anxiety, or if someone "pushes your buttons," pause for a moment and ask, "Is this fear based on a threat of real danger, or just a threat to what I think?"

Let us try to hold our ideas loosely, because wisdom can come from truly anywhere...as long as we are not afraid of changing our minds.