As you move through various stages of life, you gain courage to face the things that frighten you. Eventually, you learn that certain scary things don’t (effectively) exist, can’t truly harm you or likely don’t apply to you at this moment in time so they aren’t worth worrying about. Therefore, an average person is able to increase in interaction with and understanding of the world less hobbled by their fears. For example, little ones fear strangers, the dark, being alone, and monsters. By the time you get to college, you have to get used to interacting with people you don’t really know, you must travel at night, perhaps live by yourself and are exposed to real and fictionalized horror and violence. By then, hopefully we’ve worked through our early fears in order to manage them and get on with life. But, our fears change.
People seem to have many irrational fears (not associated with certain psychological conditions) such as being murdered, bitten by a shark, dying in an airplane crash, and having your town targeted by terrorists. Speaking from the American point of view (because it does vary around the world), the odds of these things happening to you are remote. Yet, people are less cautious about genuinely deadly things like traveling by car, smoking or maintaining an unhealthy, inactive lifestyle. Those things have a good chance of doing harm to you.
As a child, I can remember being most afraid of vampires under my bed. Curiously, my daughter had a similar bout with the same fear. I never told her of my illogical preoccupation with guarding my neck while I slept but I suspect that since our brains are similarly organized, we were affected by the same popular cultural image that resulted in a similar phobia.
In my young adult years, thanks to reading Whitley Strieber’s Communion and watching reruns of In Search Of, I was deeply afraid of aliens. The greatest fear that I could imagine was sort of an “Independence Day” scenario when suddenly the sky was filled with spaceships and humans were just a crop to be harvested or decimated.
About 10 years ago, during a discussion with a rather religious Catholic friend, the topic came up again. What was my greatest fear? My answer then was ‘the reality of the devil’. If the devil was real and actually possessing and directly influencing people on earth, that would paralyze me with fear. He was amazed at my answer since he knew I flatly disbelieved in the personal god of the Bible and subsequently, disbelieved in a personal demon as well. I saw those as human constructs, stories, myths. So, why would it scare me so much to see fictional or “real” exorcisms on TV if I didn’t believe the cause of the affliction was real? Belief is intuitive for fear; you logically shouldn’t be afraid of something that isn’t real.
My answer was that, even though all logic told me those episodes were fiction, if I was mistaken and they were indeed real, it would shake the core of my existence and would destroy all the meaning I had found in life so far.
People seem to be afraid of things that threaten their corporal existence or comfort. I was afraid of what would shatter my philosophical being. In fact, it was that concept that I really feared. The reality of intelligent extraterrestrials follows as well. If either was true, I would have to reassemble my demolished idea of reality. That would be really hard to do.
Neither of those concepts come up now in my day-to-day life. I don’t have time to meditate about them and I’m simply not going to dwell on them because that’s pointless; I can’t find out the true answer either way so why waste my time trying. I’ll get on with learning about things I can establish as real and understanding the earth as it is available to me. Logic tells me they aren’t real so I can go on with that presumption until evidence suggests otherwise. Hopefully, the evidence appears gradually, not all at once, if at all.
If I ask myself the same question today – what scares me the most – I fear most for my family. I am afraid of cars (because of all the careless drivers out there), pandemic illness (because we are overdue and ill-prepared), and losing my mental capacity. All those things are a threat to my children’s well-being. They are tangible fears that I can do little to control.
In the middle of life, when we are hamstrung by all our professional and personal responsibilities, we might not have the time to contemplate the metaphysical. Perhaps it’s best that way. I might become paralyzed by rational and irrational fears.