When something is scary, our instinct is typically to avoid it.
Clearly, this is useful for survival and is not a defect of our evolutionary development. When a small child refuses to walk into a dark room, even when adults are around, that child is exhibiting behavior specifically designed to keep themselves alive.
I often relate contemporary situations to what we did in the Stone Age. The child who won’t go into the dark room is exactly the same as the prehistoric child who won’t venture far from the campfire. You didn’t need to worry about your offspring wandering into the woods and getting eaten by a predator.
We’re hardwired to avoid the darkness.
As an adult, we still have those fears rooted deeply within us. The only difference is that we have logic and personal history to draw from to remind us that we aren’t actually in danger.
Even now at 35 years old, my brain conjures up all types of horrific images when I’m alone in a boiler room or about to open the shower curtain in an empty house at night. Even though I know there’s no danger, I half expect to be met with some demonic entity huddling in the bathtub with blood dripping from its maniacally crazed eyeballs.
Where do these thoughts come from? What purpose do they serve? Is it just an amalgamation of the horror movies I’ve seen over my life, or is it something much deeper?
“There’s no such thing as monsters,” we say to an edgy child who doesn’t want to be left alone in their room at bedtime.
While this may be temporarily comforting, monsters do exist.
They are predators.
Whether human or not, the world is full of monsters. Imagine being a primitive tribe member as a sabertooth leaps into your village. It kills a few of your family members before dragging you off into the jungle, screaming and bleeding out.
Is that not a legit monster? I think it definitely qualifies.
Now also imagine a rival tribe boils over the hill yelling and setting fire to everything. They’re hacking away at your people and carving out their hearts and eating them.
Monstrous? I tend to think so.
So monsters do exist after all. They just don’t take the forms of the hideous creatures depicted in the movies. But these images did not originate from 80’s Hollywood prosthetics. We’ve been telling tales of giants, demons, grumpkins, trolls, dragons, witches, sorcerers, gods, and ghosts for probably as long as we’ve had language.
It seems our imaginations are naturally designed to produce images of horror. It’s my belief that we have this ability in order to sober us and keep us erring on the side of caution when approaching darkness.
Why are we afraid of the dark?
Because that’s where the predators are. A hole in the ground could be a lair for a snake or a venomous spider. A cave opening can house a family of bears or wolves, reptiles, insects, or even humans lying in wait for an opportunity to strike.
Predators stalk their prey.
They don’t run into the open and make themselves known. Not typically, at least. They’re usually stealthy opportunists. Watch any National Geographic show on the hunting style of nearly any predatory animal, and you’ll see something dangerous hiding in the shadows, using its camouflage and attacking its target at the perfect moment.
They hide in the dark. They hide in holes. They hide in trees and tall grass.
They conceal themselves.
With our ability to imagine dreadful creatures lurking as we perceive a potentially dangerous environment, our adrenaline prepares us ahead of time to run or kill. Since our imaginings are as horrifying as possible, we’re ready for the worst thing that actually does exist.
So what do we do with this innate characteristic while living in modern society? I personally use it to focus on human predators.
When I’m alone at night, I occasionally imagine demons and get creeped out. This is unsettling and I’d prefer not to be forced down this line of thought. But since it seems to be out of my control, at least I get to have the benefit of heightened awareness. If there was someone sneaking around trying to kill me, I’d have a better chance of detecting them.
Of course, this is extremely unlikely, but I’d rather be aware than taken unawares.
Now let’s explore the concept of courage or bravery.
Courage doesn’t arise from a lack of fear.
In A Game of Thrones, Bran asks his father, Ned Stark, “Can someone be afraid and brave at the same time?”
Ned’s response was the first impactful thing in the book that really made me take it seriously, “Son, that is the only time a man can truly be brave.”
This is absolutely, demonstrably true.
When there is no fear, there can be no courage. We hail the heroes who return from battle because we know that we would be absolutely terrified if put in their position. Furthermore, we question whether we could actually function at all if placed in the center of a chaotic and brutal warfare scenario.
Real warriors are scared, but that doesn’t stop them from fighting.
Bravery is feeling terrified, knowing or feeling that you may not survive the encounter, but going forth anyway to do what needs to be done.
So when you’re afraid, then you have a decision to make: if you’re actually entering into a dangerous situation, you may want to back off if you don’t need to go down that path. However, it may be necessary to slay the dragon in order to get the gold and the girl that it’s guarding.
If you’re afraid of confronting someone in a social setting (like walking into an interview or meeting your girlfriend’s parents) then I suggest you face that fear.
These are moments that will define you.
If you look back on your past and see a history of avoiding scary situations, then chances are, you’re going to continue that trend. If you keep that up, then you will lose respect for yourself.
If you don’t give respect to yourself, then you can’t expect to receive it from others.
Fear comes in all types of manifestations. It can be social anxiety, fear of heights, fear of trying some weird exotic food, fear of rejection, or fear of failure. Notice how these aren’t actually life-threatening scenarios (well, aside from heights, I suppose).
Don’t let fear convince you to be safe when you’re not actually in danger. We are so afraid of upsetting people in our lives for good reason: it used to be that displeasing the people in our tribe could get us killed or abandoned.
This is why it feels like a life or death situation when you need to tell a hard truth or confront someone who is being disrespectful.
There once was a time, long ago, when those things could actually get you killed.
For the most part, those days are long gone. We now live in an age of individuality. While it’s good to have people around us as a safety net, we don’t rely on one another in quite the same capacity as we did in the Stone Age.
Speak the truth to people, step into that interview office, and let your true self be known.
I promise it won’t kill you.
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