The Gift of Fear vs. the Price of Worry & Ignorance

I recently finished reading The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker. It is a powerful book about the survival signals that protect us from violence. I think everyone could benefit from reading this book, women especially so. I recognized many components within its pages that I teach in my Vancouver/Richmond BC women’s self-defense class.

Fear Itself

The Gift of Fear breaks down the process by which fear is generated and shows how it serves to warn us of danger. De Becker posits that fear is ignited by our subconscious mind, which is registering signals of danger that our conscious mind hasn’t seen or has dismissed through “logic.” I always teach women that when they experience real fear, the kind that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, they should listen to their instincts and take action to get away from the person or remove themselves from the situation that is causing the reaction. But this experience of acute fear is very different from the kind that many women experience on a day-to-day basis, a general fear that violence could happen to them randomly. This is not “authentic” fear, according to de Becker, but is actually worry, a form of fear that is manufactured, and it actually debilitates a person’s ability to sense real danger.

The Price of Worry

This distinction between fear and worry is vital. Women who constantly worry about their safety, looking at every man on the street as though they might be an attacker, looking around every bush as though they expect to find a man hidden there with a knife, keep themselves in a heightened, anxious state all the time. By doing this, they lose the ability to sense signals of danger when it’s actually present. As de Becker puts it, “We are far more open to every signal when we don’t focus on the expectation of specific signals.”

The Price of Ignorance

On the other hand, there are women who prefer to bury their heads in the sand rather than face the possibility of violence. These women believe that if you identify and name a risk that it somehow brings it about. This line of thinking, as de Becker puts it, goes on the logic that if we don’t see it and don’t accept it, it is prevented from happening. These are the kinds of women who avoid taking a self-defense class saying, “I really don’t want to put myself in a position in which I’ll have to think about it.” It is essentially a fear of fear. When faced with actual danger, they may see the signals they need to make an accurate prediction of what will happen, but then tell themselves they’re being ridiculous, only to walk straight into the lion’s den.

It’s About Balance

As with most things, the solution is balance. Women should make a habit of practicing caution and precaution in their daily routines, maintaining a relaxed state of awareness when they are out and about. Precaution means practices such as avoiding dimly lit unpopulated paths at night, avoiding plugging into their iPods when they go out for a run, taking a taxi instead of transit or walking when they’ve had too much to drink, etc. Caution means taking action when there is a reason to, like crossing the street if they think someone might be following, moving to the front of the bus if someone is making inappropriate, suggestive remarks, notifying building security if someone is suspiciously lurking a parking lot, etc. We need not live in a constant state of worry, but we also shouldn’t ignore potential risks. By practicing awareness we gain the confidence necessary to live free, but take action when action is required.

Comments (2)

2 thoughts on “The Gift of Fear vs. the Price of Worry & Ignorance

  1. Nice summary of a well-written, fantastically-useful book. I was jogging tonight around midnight (with dog-good; with ipod-bad), when a car slowly started cruising down the street behind me. It pulled up next to me and a guy in a hoodie raced out and around the car toward me. I tensed and prepared to use the 6 classes of jiu-jitsu I have under my belt (har). Suddenly, an arm holding a gigantic bouquet of flowers popped out of the passenger-side window. The solicitous male helped his girlfriend out of the car and into their apartment.

    Perhaps my instincts need a bit of honing. My imagination seems to be doing quite fine!

  2. This bears resemblance to the concept of zanshin in the Japanese martial arts or 'awareness' which in turn depends on mushin or munen mushin: the empty mind which registers everything but does not exclude. It is an attribute which is highly sought after in the MA since it signifies the highest mastery: not having to rely on the eyes to spot danger but to feel the attackers intentions and act accordingly, even if he is attacking from behind or in the dark. I believe every person unconsciously emits signals of his true intention and we are trained by thousands of years of evolution to pick up on that and act accordingly (fight or flight) in order to survive but civilization and the rationality that goes with it has blunted that 'sixth sense' (we relied more and more on the spoken word instead of hand signals or body language), the more so because most of us live in cities which are densly populated. Since there are so many people we just ignore them as much as possible plus there's the inevitability of walking past eachother at arms length or closer so SD or personal safety really becomes complicated and this is where re-connecting with one's emotions comes in handy: if something feels wrong it probably is and caution never hurt anyone (the lack thereof obviously does). On the other hand there is the danger of going banana's and seeing a mugger or rapist behind every corner (anxiety disorder in modern psychological lingo) and this diminishes the senses so much that it actually does make you less able to defend yourself, just like a soldier who hasn't slept for days and is still expected to fight. Aristotle's golden mean is still in effect: both the extremes of carelesness and frantic worry are to be avoided. I knew the theory already but it is certainly worth repeating and awareness based on simple common-sense is still more than 50% of SD: better be safe than sorry and even the most well trained individual runs the risk of defeat (no-one is invincible), especially on today's streets with all the nastiness that may occur, so why not save yourself the trouble by following a few simple guidelines and most of all your own inner voice telling you to get the heck out of dodge at the first sign of trouble. Even if you spotted a problem a little too late you might still escape if you don't lose time debating but turn tail and run. This is why having a good pair of lungs is at least as important as mr left and right straight or sir left groin kick: the best add-on to martial arts training isn't fitness or another martial art but plain old running. It's a simple fact you can neither escape nor fight properly if you're out of breath, even the Romans already knew this: 'what can a soldier do who charges when out of breath?' (Vegetius, de rei militarii)


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