Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself (And Spiders)

I designed a shirt once that said, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself…and spiders.” You can see the design here. The shirt would be gray with black and red print. The ‘l’ in ‘itself’ extends down as the web and ends in a black widow spider. There is another spider on the back, left shoulder.

Once I had the shirt designed, I realized I couldn’t get it printed because I wouldn’t be able to wear it. In fact, I wouldn’t even want it in my closet. I am that afraid of spiders. Fear like that actually controls us and directs our behavior. It doesn’t really matter whether what we are afraid of is real or dangerous or not.

In the movie The Replacements, Gene Hackman, playing coach Jimmy McGinty, asks the replacement players during an NFL strike what they were afraid of. Someone says “spiders,” which instantly made this one of my favorite movies, and things spiral a little out of control from there. Finally, coach McGinty brings them back to center and asks what they are afraid of on the field. He then says, “Real men admit their fears.”

Fear itself is not a bad thing. It keeps us from doing foolish things. It protects us from getting too close to danger. It guides us away from things that are potentially harmful. However, it can also paralyze us, cause us to isolate ourselves from life, and control us in unhealthy ways. Like many other base emotional responses, whether fear is healthy or unhealthy depends on how we process and respond to it.

Most likely, we cannot stop ourselves from being afraid. Each of us experiences fear from a variety of situations and stimuli and in a myriad of ways. Like all emotions, it is not useful to attempt to not feel fear. Our emotions come for a wide range of reasons, most of which we cannot change or control. However, we can control our response.

Fear is a signal to pay attention to what is going on around us. It is the emotional and physical response created when our amygdala detects something that could be a threat and then alerts our body and mind through the release of chemicals and signals that prepare us to fight or flee. All of this is good and keeps us from harming ourselves, unless the response to the stimuli is not in proportion to the actual threat.

For some people (like me), in some situations (spider proximity), the fear signal is so strong that it overrides the hippocampus. The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex help the brain interpret the perceived threat. They are involved in a higher-level processing of context which helps a person know whether a perceived threat is real. If the threat is not real, or not serious enough to warrant fight or flight, the hippocampus and the frontal cortex process the contextual information, and inhibitory pathways dampen the amygdala fear response and its downstream results. Basically, the “thinking” circuitry of our brain reassures our “emotional” areas that we are, in fact, OK.

The key term in that last paragraph was “contextual.” We need contextual information to process in order to render a judgement of the level of actual threat. In the lack of context, like when we face a threat we have never faced before, we have no way to determine how to respond. Some people ignore the signal, and some people take the signal without any dampening and run with it.

In the face of a novel (new) virus (COVID-19) and a spread and mortality rate most of us have never experienced, we lack the contextual information necessary to process this new fear. I would like to point out here that I believe everyone is afraid. Everyone is experiencing a signal from their amygdala telling their body and mind that something is up, and we should pay attention to it. No one has enough experience to properly contextualize this, so we make up a response based on our natural tendencies and past experiences.

I have heard people say this is like Y2K. We will all over prepare, and nothing bad will actually happen. I have heard people reference the past flu epidemics and retell stories of calling off parades vs not calling them off and the resulting death tolls. Some people think this is the hand of God punishing us, and some people think this is a conspiracy concocted by whomever is on the other side. All of these are simply ways our brains use to try to find context for this.

So how should we respond?

I wish I could tell you. I wish I had answers to this and many other huge questions that seem to follow us throughout our lives. I don’t have the answers, but I do have some thoughts.

When many people all have a signal that something is dangerous, it probably is. I know that spiders mostly won’t harm me, because lots of data and lots of people tell me that. What little I know about COVID-19 is that it is, in fact, dangerous, and lots of people agree with that, which makes it a strong signal. So, COVID-19 is a real threat.

There are always some people who overreact to the stimuli. If a spider dropped onto my desk, I would instantly find myself in another room. I overreact to spiders (and I have no intention to stop.) So, people who are calling for getting in the bunker and not coming out until fall are probably overreacting.

There are also always people who have based their identity on not admitting to being afraid of anything. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they will maintain that nothing is wrong. There are people who handle poisonous spiders while telling us they are friendly and nice and won’t hurt us. Every so often one of these people dies from a spider bite, so don’t follow them either.

There is a rational way to process the signal of danger. Discernment is the way we sort out the facts from the hype. Thinking through the motivation behind a source of information, filtering the outliers and paying more attention to the mean trend of information, and taking time to think things out to a logical conclusion are all ways to differentiate between panic, denial, and the most likely truth.

Things are moving pretty fast right now. I am writing this on Sunday, and by the time you read it on Monday, things will be different. My heart’s desire for you and your families is that you are safe and remain calm but alert and prepared. I know the motivation of the team at Kimray is to serve and protect you, so I believe you should take what they tell you seriously. I know things are going to be difficult for some time, but this, too, will pass. I am sure that the future will be different because of this current crisis, but then, the future is always different than we think it will be.

Finally, I know that God is in control. That does not relieve me of my responsibility to act with wisdom and grace. That does not mean I will be happy with all the outcomes. That does not mean that everything will be ok. It does mean I can have peace in the knowledge that God is not surprised, knows what will happen, and loves me more than I love myself.

Fear is good if it helps us move away from harm and toward health and safety. Fear out of context and unchecked leads us to behave in ways that are harmful to ourselves and others. Great leaders acknowledge their own fear and understand the fear of those they serve. Great leaders model rational and calm responses to actual circumstances. As I have watched our team prepare and respond to this new threat, I have been immensely proud of the way they have led wisely and calmly, while taking the necessary actions and precautions. Fear is not to be feared; it is to be used appropriately to protect those we serve, not in denial or in panic, but in The Kimray Way.