A shortish pondering about Fear

When I was little, the infamous Birthday Ballot was still running. It randomly selected young men, based on their birthday, to be conscripted into the army to go and fight in Vietnam. Being a tremulous, serious-minded and impressionable young chap, I used to wonder how I would cope if I were selected when I turned eighteen. I had heard such terrible things about the war that I could not imagine having the courage to expose myself to the risk of bullets, mines and bombs, let alone capture and possible torture.

I had a terrible fear of torture. Having been instructed as a devout Roman Catholic, I quaked to think of would happen when the inexorable progress of the Domino Effect ended in the Communists conquering Australia, and then torturing all the Roman Catholics until they either renounced their beliefs or died in agony. That is what we were told the Communists would do, or at least, that was my understanding at the time of what I was told. That was an even worse fear than being sent to war because, as I understood it, I would be in the position of choosing between temporary but unbearable physical pain in the present and horrible eternal torment in Hell if I gave in and renounced my beliefs. I was pretty sure I would give in and then be condemned to Hell, which made for a fairly gloomy outlook on life.

In high school, our class was shown the horrific British film ‘The War Game’ about the effects of a fictional thermonuclear strike in Kent. I don’t know why they called it ‘thermonuclear’ rather than just ‘nuclear’, by the way. Technically, I think that just means it’s a Hydrogen bomb rather than the smaller Uranium-235 bombs. I could Google that to check but I won’t, as I might get a visit from the security services within a few minutes of Googling ‘ingredients of a nuclear bomb‘. But anyway, that word thermonuclear struck dread into my impressionable young heart. Because of its etymological connection with heat, it conjured up images from the film of bodies with charred limbs and still-alive victims staggering around in agony with sheets of burned skin draping from their backs.

Our teachers’ intentions had been good. They wanted us to reflect on the notion of forgiveness, as the film’s reporter repeatedly asked fictional Britons if they thought their country should retaliate by nuclear bombing a Warsaw Pact country. Such vox pops were intercut with gruelling scenes of the human suffering from the strike in Kent. The conclusion we were wordlessly invited to reach was that it would be unconscionable to generate more of that suffering by launching a retaliatory strike. I can’t recall whether I personally adopted that view. I hope so. But I don’t know, because at the time the alternative view, that if we didn’t retaliate the Communists would conquer us and torture us into becoming atheists, was pretty compelling too. Unfortunately the main effect the film had on me was a terror of being nuclear bombed. I used to constantly calculate how many kilometres I was from Parliament House (which I assumed would be the epicentre of a nuclear strike), and wonder whether it was far enough to avoid the worst effects of the explosion.

In short, I assumed I was a coward.

Thirty odd years later, I no longer feel I am a coward. That is partly because I find I have, over the intervening period, done things that some people consider brave, and partly because I find that I no longer fear most of the things I used to fear. In some cases the object of fear has gone. There are no Soviets to fear now, but I could easily transfer that fear to one of Islamic terrorists if I wished, as the world’s neo-cons devoutly wish me to do. But I don’t. I don’t consider the possibility of terrorists of any denomination to be worth a second thought. Nor do I waste any time worrying about muggers, kidnappers, booze-fuelled yobbos, paedophiles or dodgy tradesmen, despite the best efforts of the tabloid media to encourage me to do so. That’s not to say I won’t take simple, easy measures to avoid them. Of course I avoid taunting or staring hostilely at groups of aggressive, obnoxious young men outside a pub. And late at night I generally walk along main streets rather than narrow, deserted alleys. But that’s just practical risk management and has nothing to do with fear. It’s akin to buckling up one’s seat belt when one sits in a car.

If I were attacked by a mugger or terrorist, I would of course feel fear. Any properly functioning human would. The feeling of fear in that situation is a necessary part of the fight-or-flight response that we have evolved to help us survive. The adrenalin rushes through our system. Our nerves are on a knife edge. We tremble with anticipation, poised for an instantaneous response to any sudden threat or opportunity. But that is completely different from experiencing such trembling and anxiety while safe in our lounge room. It is different from a before-the-event terror of going out at night, walking past a rowdy pub, or boarding an aircraft.

But even though I am no longer plagued by such fears, I still don’t think I will ever do a solo bungee jump, parachute jump or jump from a ten-metre diving platform.

The word solo is crucial there, and goes to the heart of a distinction between two types of bravery that is becoming apparent to me. I am confident that, if I really wanted to, I could commit myself irrevocably to a process in which I was forced to do one of those activities. The usual way to do that is a tandem jump, in which one is secured to another person who initiates the jump. Once one is thus secured, the progress of events is outside one’s control. The jump will happen regardless of our body’s reaction. The last point at which a decision could be made was the moment of being strapped to the other person.

One makes an irrevocable commitment to a jump of a somewhat less extreme variety when one enters the car of an aggressive fairground ride like a roller-coaster. In such a ride one will experience free-fall, and sometimes the even more disconcerting negative G-forces, for seconds at a time. I have done such rides, and find myself able to do it because, at the moment of irrevocable commitment, all is calm and I know that the scary experience is more than half a minute away into the future. To me that is completely different from taking a step off a diving platform, when one knows that, the very instant one takes that step, one will be seized by that terrifying, overpowering sensation of free-fall. I find I can take that immediate step for falls up to five metres – which involves being in free fall for about one second – but not for longer falls.

I have wondered why it is that I could, given sufficient incentive, irrevocably commit to being thrown off a very high platform, but I could not throw myself off.

My tentative theory is that the body has powerful instinctive defence mechanisms against immediate (perceived) danger. When the perceived danger is right there in front of you, defensive processes happen within the body, that are too powerful to be overcome by explicit rationalisations such as ‘you know that the bungee cord will protect you‘ and ‘it’ll only last a few seconds‘. If I were being strapped to another bungee jumper, say at the bottom of the tower, prior to being hoisted to the top for a drop, those defensive processes may not be happening. The perceived danger is only then visible in the imagination, and one can to some extent control the activity of one’s imagination, directing it to other topics like linear algebra or an image of the Dalai Lama in a mankini.

Perhaps the same effect could even be achieved if one were strapped to one’s partner at the top of the tower, as long as one donned a blindfold before before ascending the tower. It would be an interesting experiment (but one I am unlikely to conduct) to see how close to the point of falling I could make the point of irrevocable commitment, without my chickening out.

Some terminology may help. I will use the words ‘Immediate Courage’ to describe the courage to throw oneself into an immediate terrifying experience. I will use the words ‘Long-term Courage’ to describe the courage to commit oneself irrevocably to a terrifying experience that won’t happen for a little while. Voluntarily enlisting to go and fight in an appropriately justified war would be a good example of Long-term Courage. We probably wouldn’t count most of the voluntary enlistments in the Great War though, as those poor young men had no idea what they were getting themselves into. Good examples of Long-Term Courage are Sydney Carton taking the place of the condemned Charles Darnay in Dickens’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, or Jean Valjean denouncing himself in court to save the wrongly accused Father Champmathieu (in Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’).

Long-Term Courage is amenable to reason. One can use reason to force oneself to board a roller-coaster car, to join the army or to hide a fugitive political dissident in the attic. But it is harder to use reason to throw oneself off a bridge or to grasp a red-hot poker that will otherwise set off a devastating firestorm.

An interesting variant of this is the passive courage of non-violent protesters like Gandhi. Joining a sit-in or protest march, no matter how dire the likely outcome, involves Long-Term Courage. But what sort of courage is in play when a policeman raises a baton to strike your head, and you know the blow will fall immediately unless you obey the command to move? Here the danger is immediate but, unlike stepping off a platform, no action is needed to suffer the consequences.

It’s Immediate Courage to act to put oneself in immediate perceived danger, but is it Long-Term Courage or Immediate Courage, to decline to act to save oneself from immediate danger – to remain still when our every nerve is screaming ‘Run!!!‘?

That gives me an idea for an interesting experiment. Say I were strapped to a bungee jumping partner, with my hands loose at my sides, but I had a pin up near my collar that, upon pulling, would instantly decouple me from my partner (while still leaving me attached to a safety device, in case I pulled it too late and still fell). Would I pull the pin? I suspect that I would be able to stop myself from pulling the pin, even though I could not throw myself solo off the platform. But I doubt I’ll ever find out.

The astute reader might at this point complain that I am mixing up my cases. Some of the activities, such as bungee jumping, involve great perceived danger but very little real danger. Other activities, like passively accepting the lathi blows of the Indian police, or going to the guillotine to save another, involve real physical harm. One could argue that the word ‘courage’ is only relevant to instances of likely serious harm, thus disqualifying bungee jumping and other simulated dangers.

That may be so. If it is, I can have little to say about courage, and most people whose lives are not confronted by war or serious crime, are similarly constrained. Few of us in the affluent society are called upon to place our lives in serious danger. Firemen, police undercover agents, defence personnel on service in a foreign war, and a few other occupations perhaps, but not many others. The most I can call to mind for myself is bicycle racing, riding bicycles and motor-bikes in hostile Sydney traffic, and some youthful adventures whilst travelling overland across Asia. That’s pretty lame compared to infiltrating a Mafia meeting with a recording device strapped to one’s chest, or parachuting behind enemy lines to blow up bridges.

I actually suspect that there may be a strong connection between one’s courage to overcome perceived danger and one’s courage to overcome real danger, at least for Long-Term Courage. Whether I am contemplating volunteering for a Commando raid behind enemy lines, or just contemplating committing to a safe but terrifying roller coaster ride, I will weigh up the pros and cons of committing, and probably decide based on their balance. If there are good reasons to commit, such as that I would suffer prolonged self-loathing if I did not, I think those would be able to win the day when under consideration in the calm light of day.

Perhaps any commitment to a terrifying act, whether Sydney Carton’s, Jean Valjean’s or Bill the Bungee Jumper’s, is ultimately undertaken because the person values a world in which the act is done more than a world in which it is not. Sydney Carton preferred to die in a heroic act rather than live, knowing how worthless he would then feel after saving himself. Gandhi preferred to incur the physical harm of the policemen’s lathi blows rather than live in a world where his compatriots continued to be exploited and oppressed by the British. Bill preferred to live in a world where he had done the jump rather than to slink back down the stairs with his (metaphorical) tail between his legs.

We can observe that the acts of Carton, Valjean and Gandhi were selfless in a way that Bill’s was not, but selflessness is a different thing from courage.

These considerations may not hold good where Immediate Courage is required. It’s hard to dispassionately weigh up long-term pros and cons when likely death or grievous injury is only a few centimetres or seconds away.

I can only guess, but I think I would have enough Long-Term Courage to enlist to fight on the front line in a war that I thought was ethically justified (which would include hardly any of the wars of the last few decades). I wonder at what point Immediate Courage comes into play then? Would it require great Immediate Courage to go over the top in the trenches of the Great War, or to run from one foxhole to another to help an injured comrade, while under sniper fire? The danger would be immediately increased as soon as one raised one’s head above the parapet, but the feeling of terror, while it may be stronger, would not be as instantaneous as that which happens when one steps off the diving platform. The bullet blow may not strike for a minute or more, or it may never even come. On such questions I can only speculate. And I hope, with great uncertainty and lack of confidence, that, once I had exerted the Long-Term Courage to enlist, I would also have the Immediate Courage to throw myself on a grenade to save the lives of younger comrades with dependants, should that at any stage appear necessary.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, December 2013


One Comment on “A shortish pondering about Fear”

  1. Enjoyed it Andrew. Some people are naturally timid and some reckless. On the jump thing – I am still happy to jump off top tower at Civic but cannot dive off the lowest tower. I like the free fall – if feet first. But I am not a thinker and I think there is a gender card in play here too. I will ask my friend who has bravery medals from Vietnam (and PTSD) whether courage is different than bravery.

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