Fear Lessons from a Bear, Rattlesnake, & New Yorker
Fear is something we have all experienced at one time or another. Some people are so wrapped up in fear that they live in a constant state of paranoia. Others seem to experience very little fearful influence in their lives. What influences which side of the fear fence we are on?
I’ve always been fascinated by the subject of fear. On occasion, I’ve also been surprised by my own reaction to it. I’ve come to appreciate that there are different kinds of fear that serve different purposes and come from different sources. Some are healthy and some are not.
Should you fear a bear in the woods?
When I first moved to the forest, I knew that sooner or later I would encounter a bear. I played this scenario out in my mind and was convinced that when it happened, I would be able to put any fearful feelings out of the picture and make the most of the experience. I envisioned myself face-to-face with this bear in a state of peaceful coexistence and unspoken communication. And then, one day….
I was helping a neighbor run a fence line near a ridge on a steep hillside. We had just sat down on the uphill side of the fence for a water break. Up the hill just behind me I heard a rustling and turned around to see what it was. Suddenly, I saw this huge black face appear from out of nowhere. It looked right at me. He was close, very close, and it really caught me off guard.
Before I tell you what happened next, I invite you to stop for a minute and imagine yourself in this situation. This big bear is so close that with one leap he could be on you. How would you respond? Do you think you would be afraid?
To fear or not to fear, there was no question!
The next few seconds happened on automatic pilot. Whatever plans I had made for this encounter ceased to matter. Somehow, I had vaulted over the fence and was probably fifty feet away before I even realized I was moving. I thought: “What are you doing, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for.” I turned around to see that poor startled bear running as fast as he could in the opposite direction.
I was surprised and a little disappointed by what had just happened. Instead of some zen like moment of oneness with a wild beast, I had been transported through time and space by the power of adrenaline, and evidently, so had the bear. I wondered, was this a victory for fear? My answer would come soon enough.
Another surprise was waiting
In those days there were a lot more rattlesnakes around and I had heard the ominous sound of the timber rattler many times. I figured it was just their way of helping us respect each others space.
One day while walking through the forest I was caught in mid-step by that disruptive rattling sound. I glanced down and realized that I was about to step directly on a coiled timber rattler. Time froze and once again I was transported by the mysterious power of adrenaline to a position of safety several yards behind the danger zone.
Sometimes fear is your friend
I immediately begun to see my encounter with the bear in a different light. These two experiences had triggered a reaction that was hardwired into my genes. I know that there are those who handle poisonous snakes and commune with bears in more controlled settings, but this was not the same!
These were surprise encounters in which my genetic programming kicked into survival mode. Genetic wisdom had taken complete control of my mind and body, exactly as it was designed to do. In most cases, any attempt to override this built in safety program would result in dire consequences. Sometimes, fear is your best friend.
Not all fear is the same
During my first summer in the forest I had no plumbing. When I got tired of bathing in creeks and rivers I would go to a nearby campground and pay for a nice long hot shower. On one such trip I met two women from New York City who were camping. When they learning that I lived in the forest, one of them said that she thought I must be very brave for living that way.
Surprised, I said “let me get this straight, you live in New York City, right?” She confirmed. I assured her that they were both much braver than I was. While she saw the city as a place of security, my perception was exactly the opposite. To me, big cities represented danger and the forest represented safety. This brings us to a second kind of fear.
Perceptual fear has to do with how we anchor our experiences, real or imagined. While perceptual fear may feel like it’s hardwired into our nervous system, it is actually based on emotional choices we make consciously and subconsciously.
We all have some degree of perceptual fear and just like its instinctual counterpart, it can serve as a protection. A good example is when we stand too close to the edge of a cliff and we get butterflies in our stomach. That can be a protection.
Being emotionally based, perpetual fear can also lead us in some unhealthy directions. Things like prejudice, mob mentality, panic, paranoia, limiting beliefs, and a wide variety of phobias are closely related to this kind of fear. Perceptual fear is based in insecurity and can easily get out of control.
Stop feeding the beast
Clearly, all fears are not the same. In an emergency situation our response may be instinctive and automatic. But the destructive fears that plague people today are not beyond our control. Perceptual type fears are contagious and are often perpetuated by propaganda. Constant exposure to sensationalized bad news reports is a perfect example.
Movies, TV shows, and computer games that focus on crime and violence send powerful messages to our subconscious. Perceptual fear is on the increase and much of it is self-induced. It’s difficult to feel secure in a war zone and yet many people are choosing exposure to that same kind of negative energy. You can’t feel happy and secure on a diet of fear and violence.
I invite you to take a close look at what you are feeding your mind. There is an emotional price to pay for embracing fear based entertainment in any form. No one is immune to the images, sounds, people, and thoughts they are consistently exposed to. That means that we all have the ability and the opportunity to influence our perception.
If we choose to surround ourselves with positive energy, that is what we will reflect. We tend to see ourselves reflected in the world around us. If we are fostering fear, the world will look more fearful. On the other hand, if our reality is built around positive energy, that is what our world will reflect back at us. When it comes to perception, we always have a choice. Yes, we can even choose to be perceptually fearless.