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Fearful of fear

Huzaima Bukhari

“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light”―Plato

The physical version of fear is actually an emotion that emerges from an anticipated infliction of pain, harm or anxiety and can be caused by someone or something. Even the most courageous among us cannot claim absolute indemnity from fear. They too have many questions, doubts and suspicions but the only thing that makes them fearless is that they just learn to live through these doubts, uncertainties, apprehensions and all that can scare others to death. Their inner strength allows them to overcome any streak of terror making them confront their ordeals by holding the bull by its horns in the proverbial sense.

If the nature of today’s world could be described in one word, it would be ‘fear’ that reigns supreme in our international politics, in our national policies and generally in the minds of the peoples on this earth. The list invoking fear is endless and includes fear of terrorism, of natural calamities, of accidental mishaps, of diseases, of other countries, of people, of wars, of losing control over world affairs, of going bankrupt, of failures, of death and most recently the pandemic in the form of Covid-19.

One can certainly not say that love is an outcome of fear but perhaps the worst form of hate is the one that erupts from fear. When we fear a specific race of humans, we begin to detest their existence giving rise to racial prejudice that causes enmity which may lead to battles and war. Even in everyday life, it has been observed that when persons in their childhood are subjected to fear of something, they begin to hate it by the time they are grown-ups. Similarly, many talented people lose their ability to consolidate their lives or nurture their endowments just because they lack confidence being jittery on account of fearing disaster. High anxiety causes people to lose their thought process and their ability to act.

In our culture, men are usually afraid that the women of their family would end up marrying the ‘wrong’ person if given the freedom to choose their life partner. Some feudal lords are also fearful about losing properties if their women get married outside the family. Consequently, sisters and daughters (sometimes even aunts) are kept under strict surveillance, disallowed to have social contacts outside the close clan, deprived of education and where allowed, prevented from pursuing a career and confined to homes. What is there other than fear that envelops such mind-set?

Children are stopped from asking questions about faith, customs and rituals only because the elders are frightened lest the little ones may rebel if they get answers that make no sense to their thinking minds. Parents often lie about certain things just to give the impression that they are all-knowing and where their limited knowledge precludes them from giving a straight response, they retaliate by either raising their voices or shutting up their children’s inquisitive mouths with some crazy notion of treading upon prohibited areas. Scared of disrupting age-old traditions, excuses are fabricated to justify them no matter how irrational or regressive they may appear.

The 9/11 episode gives another aspect of fear. Since then the world has never been the same. People were seen jumping out of the windows when the planes struck the World Trade Centre’s twin towers in 2001. They knew that these leaps would land them straight in the arms of death but the fear of burning alive by the infernal blaze was perhaps far greater, yet one cannot say that they were not afraid of falling from a high rise. This means that people could encounter multiple fears in some situations and choose the one that makes more sense to them. For example, in 1947 at the time of partition of the Indian Subcontinent, many women preferred to die rather than live and face molestation at the hands of rioters. To them, death was less fearful compared to a dishonourable life.

When it comes to governments, John F. Kennedy aptly remarked: “A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” Governments are hesitant in taking decisions that could have short term repercussions but long term benefits for the people only to avoid losing their vote bank. The lust of power is so intoxicating that main objectives are whisked aside while immediate issues are resolved through patchwork and emergency measures as treatment for symptomatic disorders attracting temporary accolades. Eric Hoffer describes this as: “We have perhaps a natural fear of ends. We would rather be always on the way than arrive. Given the means, we hang on to them and often forget the ends.”

In the end, the biggest fear humans can ever confront is a naked truth about themselves. The darkness has the capability to cover up sins whereas the bright sunlight exposes everything. Ignorance invokes confidence while knowledge brings on fear. All defects and malaise get uncovered leaving in its wake the raw truth which again, is most frightful to admit and tackle. We feel secure in the shadows of falsehood but the moment we step into daylight, not only does our conviction dwindle, fear also grips our hearts and minds. Running away from fear is no solution. Bravery is to fearlessly take on challenges regardless of the outcome. “Do not fear failure but rather fear not trying.”―Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE).

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