Fear can be our biggest enemy.
It’s insidious, a parasite which attacks the things we love most.
When it is connected to real physical threats – creatures who want to eat us, environmental catastrophes, angry drunk people – it can be a handy tool that primes our bodies to fight or flee. But I don’t live in a warzone. I’m not paid to put out fires on burning oil rigs. In my case, fear is about as useful as flatulence – it compromises my most hard-won civilised qualities.
Fear is not a construct of our conscious minds. We have to think of fear as a physical thing and mentally detach ourselves from it. It is a bunch of chemical reactions in our body triggered by a primitive lump of meat in the base of our brain called the amygdala. There it is, tiny and skulking. It doesn’t look like much but it is the seed from which our modern brains grew and evolved.
People tell us that fear can be healthy – it signals growth and change. But often when I create, my fear of failure clouds my judgement. Even now as I write, my amygdala is trickling out cortisol and adrenaline, chuckling like an evil little gremlin. “This story is crap”, he says, and a fog envelopes me. Lately I’m getting better at putting the little beast back in his box.
Without risk we are nothing, this is true. The things we love most are often the challenges which we overcome. But when we are afraid we don’t work efficiently. We may as well be writhing around in the mud, gnawing our own limbs off in a trap. There is no reason to accept fear as a prerequisite for change.
In our creative lives we know that without constant change we can’t survive. I used to take this thought to extremes, I felt that routine was a kind of death. This was obviously a disaster for my relationships and my career. What a nightmare for the people around me! I thought that by constantly blowing up my life I could find a shortcut to success. I was stronger then and I was too stupid to be scared. These days I am battle scarred, weary and wary. My failures have put the fear in me and I need to learn how to deal with it, I don’t want to waste the time I have left.
We are social creatures, designed to be part of a system. As we evolved we learnt to play nice with others. Pushing into new territory can be dangerous and our primitive mind can try to talk us out of it, extort us with nausea and sweat, a storm of thoughts, a racing heart. I guess psychopaths are the lucky ones in this respect, they have no fear of attacking anything. Threats are one thing but why does the primordial brain want us to stop improving ourselves? Perhaps if we were all constantly striving to be different, society might break down. Perhaps our collective amygdalae are in some strange way a tribe of tiny mystical creatures – civilisation’s eternal protectors. Psychological models such as this are my friends.
I’ve never been a sportsman or a comfortable performer and I’m in awe of people who can control their fear and turn it into greatness. But I’m slowly learning how to turn fear back onto itself – back onto our close and constant adversary – the amygdala.