Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Department of delayed reactions: fear and its uses

Looking Back: All my life I have had a most unfortunate coping mechanism. When I am overwhelmed and don't know what to say - I freeze, stare straight ahead with a blank look, utterly inarticulate. Like the white tailed deer, I usually have a narrow escape and leave some angry driver zig-zagging down a dark road.

The first time I noticed this effect was in economics class in eleventh grade. (This was in the late 1960's; let's say the dark ages or there abouts....) A teenager who sat across the isle from me, and who I joked with every day, asked me to the junior prom. He had slicked-back hair and pointy black shoes - trademarks of a greaser or "hood" in those days. When I heard his invitation in that husky masculine whisper, I was terrified to the core. The idea stirred all my teenage hormones into a frenzy. But I froze, stared straight ahead, made no reply at all - as if I hadn't heard him, as if he wasn't there. In my demented teenage brain - I knew instantly if we went out, things would happen, things like sex in the back of his car and all the life-altering consequences that might follow. In a second it all unfolded in my mind. My throat closed. My eyes glazed over. He never spoke to me again. The prom went on without me.

New-age shrinks have a field day with this sort of thing. Strategies for overcoming fear are legion. But deer freeze for a reason. Deer who are still escape the hunter's gaze. As it turns out, this young man was a Moltov cocktail-brewing future felon who died in jail at a very early age. Despite the popularity of "conquering fear" and "living in the moment," it's worth considering that fear can be nature's useful warning. It can save your life.
---- Mar Walker