One day, when I was four or five years old, I was sleeping over at my best friend’s house and scored the top bunk bed. I woke up in the middle of the night to find his Ronald McDonald doll staring at me and (I could have sworn) motioning for me to come closer. I whimpered and pulled the covers over my head, praying he would disappear or stop moving. Eventually, I fell asleep and then when I woke, good ol’ Ronald was sitting still on the top shelf with that creepy, big smile on his face, unanimated. It was then I decided my greatest fear was of clowns and that I would never sleepover at my best friend’s until he got rid of that horrid clown.
One could say that this fear of clowns I developed in my childhood had changed the course of my journey in some way. While seemingly trivial today, it was a traumatic experience for four-year-old me, and eventually decided for me – and my parents – what fast-food chains were acceptable. For starters, I couldn’t sleepover at my best friend’s home, I couldn’t set foot at a McDonald’s restaurant that had a Ronald McDonald statue, and I could never appreciate the entertainment a clown delivered to its audience. I can’t stress enough how petrifying it was for me to see a clown, any clown, whether a doll or a real person dressed as a clown. Eventually, this fear began to dictate how I was to live my life. Fear was the driver of my life while I was in the passenger seat, watching as it decided which way we were going.
Fear is a unique emotion in living organisms because it’s possibly the only emotion that can simultaneously control and be controlled by others. It’s also a necessary human emotion that allows us to check ourselves once in a while and be more aware of our surroundings. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a little fear in one’s life. Eventually, emotions are tools we leverage for self-development and improvement. There’s a reason why influencers encourage us to be more positive, tap into our feelings, or let out a cry once-in-a-while; they’re tools to keep us from imploding and leading a reckless life. On the other hand, fear is also a tool that can be abused by one to exploit another. As we know, some of the scariest leaders in the world use fear to gain mass obedience.
There’s no doubt that this year has been a global rollercoaster for all 7.8 billion of us human beings. I think it’s safe to assume that even those living under a rock know what’s been going on. Covid-19 is something to fear, sure, but have you ever experienced a global pandemic during a U.S. federal election year at a time when Americans are so polarized there’s no way to tell if there are any politically centre-leaning individuals left? Man, “that sh!t be SCARY!” Joking aside (we’ll talk about the 2020 U.S. election another time), Covid was able to expose the power of fear at a global level, especially with technology as a driving catalyst. This tool is so powerful that one could get another to cut off their fingers if they instilled enough fear that their fingers were detrimental to their health. I mean, the toilet paper fiasco in March 2020 was enough to show us how fear could lead one to irrationality and selfishness, among other poor and embarrassing human qualities. While I would love to go on about how others – in particular the government – leverage fear to control others, I’m going to limit this discussion to individual control, or lack thereof, of fear.
Fear is a bad! Bad Fear! Bad!
Some of us grown folk remember a time when parents used to shame their children for being afraid. It was a taboo topic. They told us to stand up and face our fears like a man because apparently, men were good at that kind of stuff. Fear was considered a weakness by most, which gave rise to a lot of reckless (and I use that term very lightly because it can also bring about bravery) behaviour in the 20th century, such as Evel Knievel and Stephen Irwin. However, just because you’re not afraid to do something doesn’t mean you should do it. Fear is a tool used by the body to protect it and can also be humbling. Sometimes, it’s worthwhile to harness fear to make responsible decisions for the sake of one’s life and others. For example, Covid-19 being a serious virus, one about which we knew nothing and still know very little, should instill a healthy dose of fear within us so that our body can take the necessary precautions to protect itself. There’s nothing wrong with a little social distancing; in fact, I could live without people breathing down my neck in packed, rush-hour train rides and trying to cop a feel.
The other side of the coin is when fear drives us to do the unimaginable. Remember the story that took Quebec by storm in January 2009 of a couple who allegedly plotted a murder-suicide, killing their three young children and themselves? 2009 was the tail-end of a brutal recession in Canada, and it took a toll on many people’s financial and physical health. Some families went from living comfortably with little debt to complete poverty and homelessness in a short period. Not being able to control your fear and allowing it to consume you can lead to devastating decision making and by extension, circumstances. As Covid-19 continues to loom over our heads, and the media constantly reminding us to be very afraid, remember that you are the driver of your life and not fear. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself alienating your community and missing out on the life you could have. I’m not saying be reckless (as you read above); I’m saying, be smart, responsible and considerate. Identify your best- and worst-case scenarios and develop a plan (and a plan b) for those cases, because if there’s anything we learned this year, it’s that the government has no plan designed specifically and only for you. As a way to control my fear, I always make sure I have a plan B, C and D in case things don’t go the way I plan them to which is not unusual in life. Finally, lean on your support system (family, friends, neighbours, etc.); a different perspective or help in viewing the silver lining can go a long way to prevent fear from taking control of your decision-making.
There’s a little good in every fear
I won first place at an inter-school public speaking competition in 2005. I was 16 and had a bit of stage-fright. As I waited behind the curtains for my turn, I can feel my heart racing in my throat, and my fingers were going numb as the blood in my body rushed back up to my head. It was the first time I was public speaking. I knew if I had let fear take over, I’d forget my lines and freeze – just like Eminem did the first time he stood on stage to rap. I would lose the competition and miss out on an opportunity to demonstrate my talent. However, I also knew that I wouldn’t be humble without fear and that arrogance would take over and lead me to make careless mistakes – I’ve seen through the course of my life how my arrogance and lack of fear had led to poor judgment. My teacher and coach, who was a bit old fashioned, told me to take a deep breath and pretend everyone was naked. Then she retracted the latter because she was also an Islamic teacher and didn’t want me to think she was literal. Nevertheless, taking a deep breath is one of the most important lessons I learned to control my fear.
Fear helps us identify obstacles that may pose a threat to our livelihood. It’s not an emotion that forces us to come to a complete halt (not necessarily), but a warning sign that what is to come may not be beneficial for us mentally, physically, emotionally, or otherwise. It prevents us from making reckless decisions and helps give us pause to consider other avenues. Fear also strengthens our core and provides an opportunity for us to be brave in the face of what our mind perceives as danger (remember, fear is also subjective). Covid-19 is something to be afraid of, but if we take a moment to think about the silver lining and how we can leverage that fear to do good, we’ll find that we are in control of our lives and not our fear of it. We want to be responsible and aware, but we don’t want to hide and be consumed by hysteria.
That said, if you’re being chased by clowns – like the creepy North American clowns of 2016 – your time for pause may be quite limited, but there’s always time to take a deep breath as you run as fast as possible; because with fear comes a surge of adrenaline.