Opinion & Features

The peril of having too much fear

St Joan of Arc had a powerful reply when asked if she was in a state of grace (AP)

‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” said Franklin D Roosevelt facing the economic crisis of 1933. He went on to describe it as “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses…” Strong words for a strong occasion, but it may be useful to remind ourselves of the fear we encounter in our own lives, and whether its effect is negative or positive. I am not thinking here of chronic anxiety which dogs some people and requires professional attention, but rather the fears we encounter every day.

I am reminded of an advertisement by an American tyre company. No wonder it was successful because it offered a strong price reduction. But the original price on the page and the bargain price were, by mistake, exactly the same. Since the responses were no fewer than those for the corrected version of the offer, it would seem that the attraction was the bargain rather than the actual price. This is an example of fear of loss.

Many studies have shown that we are substantially more motivated by the fear of a loss than by the possibility of a gain. It explains the endless chains of advertisements which proclaim a limited time offer or the threat of stocks running out. A successful life assurance salesman told me that he would approach potential clients a fortnight before the premium increased at their next birthday. Fear of loss clinched many a sale.

Since common sense tells us that, without this fear, we could make buying decisions more objectively, we recognise its negative effect. But this example is relatively trivial, so let’s think about insomnia. Twenty million people in this country have sleep problems. Many insomniacs report that their fear of having a bad night’s sleep has in itself become the problem. And this is increased by the prospect of the demands of the next day. Such fear becomes self-fulfilling. For the insomniac, having nothing in the diary for the next day is a boon.

Imagine that you live with your family in one of those tragic towns which are regularly subject to random bombardment. Fear is unavoidable and appropriate. But as Roosevelt suggests, if it reaches a stage of paralysis it becomes negative. Instead of taking such steps as are available to maximise safety, you sit there miserably awaiting doom. Fear has not served you well. Indeed, eradicating fear, were that possible, would be a positive advantage.

If fear is so negative in its effects, we might wonder why evolution has given us such a response. Perhaps it is related to the phenomenon known as “fight or flight”. This is an autonomic reaction, which we share with the lower animals, to sudden danger. It releases a cascade of hormones which prepare the body for instant response. Fear, by contrast, is a condition which puts us on long-term warning that we are under threat.

So both fear and “fight or flight” have their evolutionary uses, but only up to a point. Beyond that point they both do more harm than good.

In Bernard Shaw’s play, Joan of Arc is asked if she is in a state of grace; she replies: “If I am not, may God bring me to it: if I am, may God keep me in it.” None of us knows for certain what our final fate will be, should we be run over this afternoon by a bus. And of course, as Christian morals are presented, we are faced continually by the alternatives of an eternity of bliss and an eternity of punishment.

It is certainly true that the gift of free will implies that we are free to reject God, and that he will respect that choice. But at the psychological level, the two are not balanced: our exaggerated fear of loss is likely to ensure that the prospect of damnation will loom larger in the mind, quenching spiritual growth. And this may indeed be paralysing for those who are especially vulnerable to fear.

When Richard Dawkins suggests that inculcating faith in infants is a form of abuse, I find myself agreeing with him in respect to this issue. It continues throughout the Catholic life. We are continually reminded of opportunities for mortal sin – from missing Mass on Sunday to throwing Jews into gas chambers.

Or, put more correctly, we are surrounded by matters sufficiently grave that, if we adopt them with full knowledge and consent, we will damn ourselves. Unfortunately we have no way of knowing whether our knowledge is full or our consent complete. We should not be surprised that many Catholics go absent without leave and degenerate into virtuous humanism.

A Christian life which is sustained by fear cannot be what God intended. Can we reconcile gentle Jesus, meek and mild, with weeping and the gnashing of teeth?