Exposing and Expressing Fear is Key to Reducing It

Years ago, I was captivated by Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi. When I finished reading it, I immediately went back to page one and read it again. The story centers on “Pi” an Indian Tamil boy who, after a shipwreck, survives 227 days drifting on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean. With him in the lifeboat is a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

The novel has sold over 10 million copies, won numerous awards, and was made into a movie winning four Academy Awards. Yann Martel masterfully illustrates the uncertainty and relativity of truth and reality. He cleverly draws the reader into this fictional world with a note from the author that sounds like we’re reading a true story.

As Pi is drifting on the ocean, he finds ways to produce fresh water and catch food from the sea while sharing the boat with a tiger intent on eating him. I was especially struck by a passage on fear (condensed for brevity):

“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary… it goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease. It begins in your mind, always. One moment you are feeling calm, self-possessed, happy. Then, fear, disguised in the garb of mild-mannered doubt, slips into your mind like a spy… You become anxious.

Reason comes to do battle for you. You are reassured. Reason is fully equipped with the latest weapons technology. But, to your amazement, despite superior tactics and a number of undeniable victories, reason is laid low. You feel yourself weakening, wavering. Your anxiety becomes dread.

Fear next turns fully to your body, which is already aware that something terribly wrong is going on… Every part of you, in the manner most suited to it, falls apart. Only your eyes work well. They always pay proper attention to fear.

Quickly you make rash decisions. You dismiss your last allies: hope and trust. There, you’ve defeated yourself. Fear, which is but an impression, has triumphed over you.

The matter is difficult to put into words. For fear, real fear, such as shakes you to your foundation… If your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”

Tomorrow we publish my August blogs in the September issue of The Leader Letter. This issue focuses on fear. It’s a dark force behind stress, worry, prejudice, extremism, bullying, avoidance, and ineffective leadership. Fear’s many disguises mean it’s often unnamed and allowed to hide in the shadows. Cognition — thinking about our thinking — through exposing and expressing fear is a key step in reducing it.

Fear creates doubt. That often leads to cynicism. And then we withdraw from following our heart and pursuing our dreams. As Martel puts it, “to choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”