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

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On Adventures

When I was little I wished I could have an adventure. I put it down to reading too much Enid Blyton. The children in her stories were always having adventures. In the Wishing Chair and the Faraway Tree they visited magical lands in the clouds, got chased and imprisoned by goblins, wizards and stern school-teachers (Dame Slap and Mr Grim), flew on various improbable objects and had regular feasts. In the Famous Five and the Secret Seven they snuck across dark moors at night, following shadowy men in overalls who turned out to be either burglars or smugglers, frequently nearly getting caught, but finally managing to trick the wrong-doers and manoeuvre them into a sticky situation in which the grateful police were able to arrest them.

Oh, why can’t I have adventures like that?’ I wondered. ‘Why is my life so dull? If only I could have just one adventure, I’d be so happy!

In primary school I loved playing soldiers with my friends in the bush around my home. Sometimes it was just me and my imagination. There were lots of great places: creeks with banks you could peer over to take a shot at the enemy, tall grass you could creep through, mounds of stones and sticks to hide behind and wriggle over. ‘If only’ I thought ‘this was a real war and I was a real soldier, with a tin helmet, a combat back-pack and a Lee-Enfield rifle’. I never thought about what shooting someone, or getting shot, would mean for me or them. One generally doesn’t, as a seven year old boy. When you’re shot you just fall over. You don’t bleed or scream.

When I was older, I graduated from Blyton and Boys’ Own Adventure Annual to CS Lewis and from there to JRR Tolkien. ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ – now there’s an adventure’: travelling enormous distances over magical landscapes of enchanted forests, brooding mountains and miasmic swamps. Pursued by hideous spectres on terrifying black stallions. Dreading the power of the Dark Lord that I know is out there searching for me, growing stronger every day. I wasn’t that keen on the battle scenes – they were too chaotic and repetitive for me – but the struggle against the elements, trying to traverse the Misty Mountains in a blizzard, getting lost in the Mines of Moria, evading the tentacled monster in the black pool, that was the stuff of life! I longed to peek into Mordor, or even just to visit the Misty Mountains.

In later high school I often rode my bicycle out into the countryside. One of the rides was an 80 kilometre circuit past Tidbinbilla, to the West of Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory. There were steep hills and, further to the West, the Brindabella mountains. They were pretty good, and would occasionally get snow in mid-winter, but they were no Misty Mountains. Partly it was the lack of craggy peaks, partly the usual lack of snow, and partly the fact that the surrounding countryside was mostly brown, nothing like the lush green of Tolkien’s Shire.

One winter it rained more than usual, and the foot-hills turned green. I remember looking at them as I rode by and thinking: ‘Now if only they didn’t have those wire fences, and they had snowy peaks in the background, then this would be like the Lord of the Rings!’ There could even be dwarves and barrow-wights in tunnels under the ground.

Perhaps today’s teenagers would instead imagine that it was the countryside near Hogwarts, with dragons and hippogriffs flying overhead.

Later in high school I became more interested in girls and less interested in Tolkien. CS Lewis would have been disappointed in me.

I don’t recall thinking about adventures at all between my mid-teenage years and a few months ago, when I suddenly remembered riding through the Tidbinbilla hills and wishing I could see orcs peeping up above the granite boulders that litter the ground there.

What seems odd to me now is that it never occurred to me that riding my bike on an 80km loop in mostly deserted countryside, with no mobile phone, nobody knowing where I was, and with inexpertly driven cars occasionally whizzing past me at 100kph, was an adventure of its own. Not to mention the occasional attacks of dogs from below and magpies from above.

Nor did it occur to me that there was plenty of danger in the snakes that undoubtedly hid in various parts of the long grass through which I imaginatively snuck in my primary school war games, or the stones that my friends and I would occasionally hurl in one another’s direction, pretending they were grenades (‘oh to have a real live grenade!’).

In those days we had freedom that kids these days can only dream of. We could go wherever we liked, and do what we wanted as long as it wasn’t something likely to raise the ire of our parents or the police, or if it was, then as long as they didn’t find out about it. But we lamented the lack of smugglers and orcs in our lives. Oh, dreary existence that has no such pantomime baddies to liven it up!

Not that there weren’t real baddies. I remember Barry the Bully at primary school (not his real name), a lumbering, brutish lad whose only means of expressing himself seemed to be to thump the daylights out of some unfortunate child of lesser stature who had the misfortune to wander nearby. I vaguely remember him pummelling me one day, surrounded by the usual ring of excited nine-year olds looking on. I suppose I could have considered that an adventure, but somehow I didn’t. Like most of my schoolmates I feared Barry then. Looking back now, I can only feel compassion. I wonder what sort of life he has now, and if he is still alive. I fear he may not be flourishing, but I may be wrong. Barry wasn’t really bad. He was just an inexorable product of his genes and his environment, and I suspect he suffered from his inability to interact with people except through violence, as much as others did.

There were lesser villains too, like the minor antagonists in a pantomime melodrama. The boys from the government school sometimes stole my school bag and tossed it from one to the other, to tease and punish me for being a Roman Catholic and going to the RC school. Then there were the boys at my school who mocked me for having so many patches on my hand-me-down shorts. I remember my mother once tearing down to our school in a rage and excoriating them for their teasing. I can’t remember what led up to that but I remember vividly the verbal tirade she unleashed on them and their quivering, shame-faced silence as they stood there being denounced. I don’t think they teased me any more. I suppose in that episode my mother was as much a hero of the adventure as Galahad or Lancelot, Jupiter Jones or Janet (Secret Seven) ever were.

Then there was the dreaded Mr F at junior high school. He was as violent as Wackford Squeers – another adventure villain that loomed with lurid clarity in my over-excited imagination. The main difference was that, unlike Squeers, Mr F would smile in a broad, friendly manner as he twisted your arm behind your back or lifted you out of your chair by the ears, with his stubby, nicotine-stained fingers. I think he saw this violence as some sort of game, expressing good-natured affection to the students. It was not malicious. Generally I bore him no resentment, and even quite liked him. There was only one occasion when I mentioned to my mother that I thought my arm might be broken because, after a particularly savage twisting, I couldn’t use it properly. It got better. Yet despite the Squeers-like violence (would Severus Snape be a modern-day equivalent?) it never occurred to me that these elements of colour in my life were as good as any Blytonian or Dickensian adventure. I still thought my life was bland.

When I was five we lived in Aberystwyth, Wales and my parents announced that we were going to move to Australia. This set off two fantastic trains of thought in my impressionable young mind.

Firstly, I imagined that Australia was a land covered with thick, dark jungle, and that we would live in a hut in a small clearing. The jungle would be full of snakes and whenever we went outdoors we would have to tread carefully to avoid being bitten.

Secondly, I remember resolving, standing next to the stove while dinner was being prepared, that our arrival in Australia would mark the beginning of a new life for me, and would be an opportunity for me to put my sins behind me and become the good boy that I wanted to be. Inculcation of Catholic Guilt began early in the RC church in those days, at least it did in Wales (those Welsh nuns were well fierce!). I can’t remember whether I ever recalled this resolution once we arrived in Australia. Regardless, the resolution did not seem to be fulfilled. A couple of years later I was as guilt-ridden as every RC boy is expected to be.

One would think that moving to a jungle-filled, snake-infested, primitive land where one seeks to purify one’s soul from its many misdeeds contains many of the elements of a classic adventure. But again I didn’t see it that way then. Snakes and pious aspirations are all very well, but where were the smugglers?

Later teenage years and university have different sources of excitement from boyhood: discovering girls, discovering sex, discovering algebraic topology.

I travelled a lot after leaving school, in a gap year, in university holidays and after leaving uni. I travelled through many lands: Europe, Morocco, India, South-East Asia, Iran, Pakistan. I was mostly on my own and always on a shoe-string budget, sleeping and eating in some very run-down places and encountering many dicey situations – recklessly driven buses careering on two wheels around U-bends on precipitous mountain passes, enduring dysentery and fever in a lonely concrete hotel room, sinister strangers in railway carriages trying to show me pornographic pictures and suggesting mutual exploration of what they depict, crossing the Iranian border with US bank notes hidden in my shoe to avoid the extortionate exchange rate required by the Iranian border controls (and wondering what they’d do to me if they found them). I would have described such things as an experience, but the word adventure never occurred to me. Adventures happen to other people, and usually only in books. Not to me.

When one grows up – whenever that is, some time between the age of 25 and 40 for me – one has other challenging, frightening and exciting experiences. Accompanying one’s partner through the experience of childbirth. Raising a child. Buying a house. Moving across the world to live and work in another country. Most people know what these experiences are like. As a five year old, I would have found the contemplation of such experiences terrifying, yet there I was wishing I could chase smugglers in Cornish caves, or dodge German machine-gun fire as I leaped from foxhole to another.

When we middle-aged people look back over our life to date, there will in most cases be plenty of exciting, surprising, dangerous events, in between the humdrum and routine. Yet in my case at least, I often saw the danger or the challenge in a negative light at the time, wishing it were not there. I have only recently realised how contrary this is to my childhood wish for adventures, a wish that surely some other children must share. The only things I can think of that are missing from real-life experiences, compared to the Secret Seven or Harry Potter, are the presence of magic, and of people trying to kill, or at least imprison you. Yet modern science is far more wonderful, surprising and weird than any tale of magic or myth ever was, and even if people aren’t trying to kill us, we nevertheless live in the constant danger of being accidentally killed by a motor car or attacked by a virus or cancerous cell.

Perhaps if we could re-frame our perception of the vicissitudes of life as an adventure, rather than an imposition or a chore, we would appreciate it more. When we trip while jogging and seriously bark our elbows on concrete, as I did the other day, we can view that as another interesting experience, rather than reacting as ‘woe is me’. Maybe, if one day I have to undergo chemotherapy, or a lingering terminal illness, I will be able to even frame those as new experiences. We shall see. Perhaps even death, as that great philosopher Albus Dumbledore said, is “the next great adventure”.

Andrew Kirk. Bondi Junction, 3 July 2013