Nothing good comes from being afraid

If you listen to some of the politicians, it sounds like we have much to fear in this world. Fear gets a lot of attention and seems to rally people around various issues.

The fear spectrum runs across all issues:

the country is going in the wrong direction

homegrown terrorists

economic collapse

the government is coming for your guns

The list goes on and on and makes me wonder how many of us are really living in this state of fear. It is not a good state in which to reside.

Do we really understand the nature of fear and how it works and what it does to us? There is that famous line by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that goes, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” What a great quote, but do we understand that? Why should we be in fear of fear? Why should that be such a warning to us? What is that power that fear seems to hold over people?

Many politicians seem to bank on that power of fear. I think fear is way overrated and used much too often.

First of all, I see two kinds of fear in general. One is the clear and present danger that evokes a fear response of “flight or fight.” That is the fear of imminent danger, such as a fire in your house or being accosted by someone on the street. Included in this is the fear of impending but less physical dangers, such as the fear of not being able to pay the rent, buy food for your family, buy gas to get to work or find shelter for the night.

All these fall into a category I would call “actionable fears.” Not that we can solve them immediately, but you can actually do something about them. One can run, get a loan, seek help or take other measures to hopefully alleviate the situation. That fear is real and mostly temporary.

I find the other kind of fear to be much more dangerous. It is the fear we imagine. I have seen it paralyze many people.

In my career, I was in consulting to major change in companies, and one of the issues I had to deal with was the fear of the unknown. That was thrown up to me all the time. This is such a common misconception of life, but one that I had to deal with.

I would ask people in my sessions if they believed the fear of the unknown was real. Most thought it was. I then asked them to think of something they know absolutely nothing about, that they feared. People attempted to come up with examples, but in each case I pointed out that they knew something about those fears.

Try this for yourself. If you know nothing about something, what can you fear?

But, there is a sensation around the unknown that we all have certainly experienced. If you slow down your mind a bit, you will see that when confronted with some unknown future our minds immediately fill in that blank space with our imagined outcomes, and then we react to our imagination as if it were real.

As an example, you hear a rumor that there is going to be a cutback at work, and you begin making up that you will be fired. You begin to imagine not having an income, looking for a job, not paying the bills, etc. Fear takes over, even though you do not know what will actually happen.

But the imagined fear becomes a reality for you and you get fixated on that possibility, as if it is actual. And in that imagined fear, we lose our ability to act reasonably.

This is what President Roosevelt meant by his famous quote. When we fill in the blank about some unknown future (and by the way, all the future is unknown) we begin to diminish our ability to act with clarity and confidence and commitment. It undermines our ability to stay focused on what information we do have. We begin to think and act irrationally, and dismiss new data coming at us.

Many politicians/leaders use fear to get people to diminish their clear understanding of what is going on. If someone tells you that passing some law will mean that you will no longer be able to practice your religion, speak your mind, or live as you wish, fear can take over and eliminate your ability to understand how things work in a clear-minded way. This happens on the right and the left, and all in between.

Fear blinds us to understanding. Fear diminishes our capability to grasp complexity. Fear destroys our ability to act with clarity. We shut down with fear or lash out at the imagined enemy. Either way diminishes our ability to deal with life.

Next time you hear any politician or group tell you how much danger you are in, slow down and listen to what you may be making up about all that. Put that fearful future aside and look at the data. Not the imagined data, but the facts of the situation. And today, we need to be careful of where the facts come from. There are a lot of fear peddlers out there.

A nation of fearful people can be easily swayed to bad decisions. Living in fear, is a sure way to make your personal life less successful. Fear spawns stress, and stress is not good for any part of our life. Do not trust those who increase the fear in your living.

If a situation is a threat, adding fear does not increase your ability to deal with it. Increasing options does.

Columbus retiree Tom Lane is a community columnist and all opinions expressed are those of the writer. He served as a consultant to a number of companies in his career. He can be reached at