Fear (In Theory)

Phobias are common. Everyone is scared of something. Some have a fear of heights or the dark. Others fear failure or death. I once knew a girl who was afraid of mismatched straws; the sight of two differently colored straws in the same drink literally caused her feelings of anxiety. We give our fears fancy names: arachnophobia, enochlophobia, podophobia. As if nomenclature is the first step of conquering that which scares us.

In comics, Bruce Wayne feared bats (chiroptophobia) so he donned a bat suit and became the Batman to strike fear into the criminal underbelly of Gotham. Elsewhere in the DC universe, Jonathan Crane sought revenge on the bullies that taunted him through adolescence by invoking their fear; he was obsessed with phobias. Years later, he got a job as the psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum and conducted fear-inducing experiments on the Arkham inmates. With degrees in psychology and biochemistry added to a constant desire for revenge, he created a blend of drugs and toxins to concoct a fear-gas that he would use to exploit those things his advisories feared. Under a mask, Dr. Crane is better known as the Scarecrow - a deranged super-villain (and my personal favorite) in Batman's Rogues Gallery.

The late 70s and early 80s popularized the slasher movies - a subgenre in horror. In these movies, masked or disfigured madmen stalked and murdered young and beautiful people. Michael Myers is an unkillable boogieman in Halloween. Freddy Krueger wears bladed gloves and haunts the dreams of the teens, killing them in their sleep. The hockey masked Jason Voorhees hunts the counselors of Camp Crystal Lake with machete. Each of these villains struck fear into the hearts of their victims.

It permeates pop culture. From the pages of Stephen King novels to the classic literature of Bram Stoker and HP Lovecraft. We see it in survival horror video games and Halloween costumes. Fear is the driving force in film from big budget blockbusters to creature feature b-movies. Of the greatest motivating emotions (anger, love, heartbreak) fear seems to be the most powerful. It is deeply primal and preys upon our instincts. Terror prompts our fight or flight responses.

A few weeks ago, I had a long conversation with my oldest son about how middle school is a breeding ground for fear and insecurity. He was frustrated how so many of his classmates are so mean to other students and how those he considers friends can act in ways that are out of character to humiliate each other.

We discussed social hierarchies and those unwritten rules that dictate group dynamics. We discussed human biology and child development through the various stages and how our minds and bodies change as we grow from an infant to a toddler to a kid to a tween and teen to a young adult to a (hopefully) fully functioning adult. We talked about humanity's history from tribalism to modern civilization. We talked about how cultural norms are formed and cemented and how difficult they are to break. We talked about how gender biases and ableism and stereotypes influence the way people behave.

I painted a picture for him to explain why our neurology once viewed those who were bigger and stronger as protectors of our tribes. They defended us from thieves and rival tribes and the dangers of nomadic lifestyles. When people began to settle into cities, those bigger and stronger members of society became our soldiers and providers. Despite centuries of progress our human nature still defaults to old biases to govern who are the popular kids and the outcasts, who we admire and who we avoid. Our brains still make assumptions and snap judgments to determine those in our circles who are bigger and stronger and those who are weak and powerless.

Christian also understood that he's reached the age where our psyches are most fragile. Being a tween is when everything changes. Bodies are going through puberty and experiencing hormones and emotions that they've never encountered before. Personalities evolve. Voices and appearances morph. At the same time, these kids transition from the routines of elementary school into middle school. There are more teachers to remember, more books, more students, more homework, locker numbers and locker combinations, stricter rules, chaotic class schedules. There are added pressures to perform academically and fit in socially.

Everything is new and strange and intimidating. Biologically, mentally, emotionally, socially, it all creates an environment where the most natural response is a feeling of insecurity. When we're feeling insecure we fear exclusion and isolation. In middle school, ostracization is the worst of fates.

I asked Christian what we do when we feel insecure. He comprehended that we over compensate. We hide our insecurities. He knew that's what we do, but he couldn't understand why. If everyone feels this way why don't we admit it? In his mind, it should be the most normal thing in the world.

My answer didn't satisfy him. Admitting our insecurities makes us feel weak. It makes us feel less than. In a world where we look to the bigger and stronger in our peer groups as the best, none of us want to look weak. So we fake it. We try to act tough in hopes of climbing the social ladder. Our fears make us act ridiculous. Common sense is ignored in our desire to fit in and be accepted. Christian thought this reasoning was absurd. In fact, the words he used were "That's so unhealthy."

Can't argue with the kid. It is unhealthy. There is much about our culture is unhealthy. We are walking a tight rope between acknowledging it's just the way it is and admitting it doesn't have to be like this. Christian wanted to know how we fix it. How do we change our culture so that people are freer to admit our fears and insecurities? Wouldn't our society be healthier and better if we could be open and honest about our feelings without the illogical social rules that currently restrict us?

I don't have easy answers for him. Or any answers. What I do know is that change is difficult. After all, change is another thing many people fear. If anything is to happen to create the cultural shift Christian desires, it will take a lot of people acting counterculturally. Whoever goes first is going to be thought of as strange and weird.

We need people who are not afraid of being weird.

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