Dealing With Fear: Side Note

One of my readers, “anthonyallen” has submitted a couple of good comments on two other posts, The 30,000 and Dealing With Fear — Part 1: Everyday Life. Dealing With Fear was even written to address his first comment on The 30,000. But the reply I wrote to his second comment (which was long and also about dealing with fears), I thought I’d include as yet another post of its own. He inspired some thoughts that were, to me, well worth thinking, and then worth writing, and I hope the larger audience here will find them worth reading.   

Anthonyallen, I won’t address every part of your comment, but I’ll toss a couple-or-three general things at you:

First, I am glad you pressed “submit.” That was a good, meaty comment. It was long, thoughtful, and you put something of yourself, your real feelings, into it. I don’t know of any blogger alive who wouldn’t be happy with something of substance like this. You’re GOOD at commenting, good at writing, and – fears or not – you should keep doing it.

My responses:

1) Most of us have little or no idea what other people are supposed to be like.

You’ll see me call myself a “doofus” here fairly often. I know for a fact that I’m a complete idiot about a lot of things. Something I realized very late in my life-so-far is that everybody else is the same way.

You ever notice how people with eccentricities, even fairly wild ones, are simply accepted by most of the people around them?

There are some 40-something guys who come into the store where I work, three of them, so fat that two of them ride those little shopping-cart scooters the store provides. They all wear overalls and have long, unkempt ZZ Top beards. For some reason I think of them privately as “the Bubbas.” I’ve guessed that they all live together in a place that doesn’t have running water, because damn, those boys SMELL. I can pick them up with my nose from 20 feet away. Anytime I see them in the store, I get some distance until well after they’ve passed.

But they seem completely comfortable with themselves. If I was one of those OTHER kinds of eccentrics, the kind that just says what he thinks and damn anybody who has a problem with it (well, and if I didn’t worry about losing my job), I’d pop out with “Jesus, you boys STINK! You ever think about stepping under some running water every day or so??”

But nobody says anything like that. Some part of it has to be politeness, but I really believe another big part of it is this: NOBODY REALLY KNOWS HOW PEOPLE ARE “SUPPOSED” TO BE.

Took me a long time to realize that, but I’m sure it’s true.

When I was about 20, I was taking a night class and I met a guy who always dressed like Beethoven. He was actually known around town as “Houston’s Beethoven.” There was even an article about him in the local paper. He’d appear at all the hot clubs in his lace cravat, black boots, tailored period-perfect suit, and had people crowding around him. “Hey, it’s Houston’s Beethoven! That guy over there, he’s Houston’s Beethoven! He’s so cool! I wanna talk to him!”

I got to talk to him after class on the first night. A friend, Wendy, introduced us. Everybody was going clubbing, and they were all excited he was in the crowd.

I recall him being a smiling, nice-enough kid. But when I asked him “So, you compose music?” he said brightly “No!” “You play the piano or something?” “No! I DRESS like Beethoven!”

And shy as I was outside, inside I couldn’t help thinking “Dude, Beethoven isn’t famous for the way he DRESSED.” I think I’d have been more impressed if he’d worn a dog collar and talked funny and called himself Houston’s Scooby-Doo.

But I didn’t say anything. Nobody did. He was Houston’s Beethoven, famous for being famous, and it never entered people’s heads that he was … well, fantastically SILLY. Nobody knew it.

2) Most people around us are decent enough, but an appreciable percentage of them are complete assholes.

The thing is, the assholes don’t know they’re assholes. It’s probably why they stay assholes. They appear to think that’s the way they’re supposed to be.

“Well, sure I screw people over, lie to them, hurt people’s feelings, persuade them to do stuff for me with no expectation of returning the favor. But hey, everybody’s that way. That’s what you DO.”

But it’s not. They get away with it because of #1. Nobody knows they’re not supposed to be like that. Or at least they don’t know it well enough to tell them, and keep telling them, and KEEP telling them.

All the asshole cops who pepper spray 12-year-olds or taser 85-year-old women, all the lying asshole rent-to-own salesmen who “rent” you a big-screen TV they KNOW you’re going to end up paying three times the normal price for, all the asshole tobacco company execs who helped millions of people die in the most horrible ways imaginable, all the asshole parents who let their kids run screaming through the restaurant where you’re trying to eat dinner …

Well, they’re assholes. Seriously. Ass. Holes.

I take both these points together (usually in a somewhat kinder, slightly less blunt fashion) and conclude that I – and you – probably don’t have to worry too much about what we’re like. Most people aren’t going to judge us, and some of the ones that do are assholes.

You and I and most of the people here are some of the non-assholes (heh — or at least we HOPE we are), and so we’ll continue to care about the way we treat other people, the impression we’re making on them. But there are limits.

For me, the limit is this: I make mistakes. I screw up. I embarrass myself. I do it all the time. BUT I HAVE A RIGHT TO BE LIKE THAT. Just as everybody else has a right to be like that. Hopefully I’ll always try to be better, hopefully too I’ll have a chance to fix the really bad screw-ups, the ones that hurt other people.

But meanwhile, I’m not going to sweat the small stuff. If I walk around with my zipper down (yeah, it’s happened to me twice as an adult) and nobody tells me about it, despite noticing, it’s my fault and embarrassing as hell, but it’s also a little bit their fault for not telling me and allowing me to avoid the greater embarrassment. So I’m not going to dwell on it. And anybody who holds it against me (or you), it’s them there’s something wrong with, not me (or you).

Finally:

3) There’s an issue of … oh, call it “relative bigness” in our relations with others.

I went through a substantial part of my life feeling like everybody around me was big and complete and grown up, and like I was the small, unformed kid who had to live up to their expectations, but who also needed their help and guidance and leadership.

It was somewhere in my 30s that I discovered this very weird fact: Large numbers of other people around me, at one time or another, felt the same way.

They expected me, they NEEDED me, to be one of the big, complete people.

(They expect US, they need US, to be the big, complete people.)

Took a while for that to sink in, but ever since then, I’ve tried to be.

I fail. I fall on my ass. I do it often. But I still try.

That’s all any of us can do.

Yes, things can get better. You can fight and defeat some of the fears (and yes, sometimes some of us need professional help in doing it). The fact that you care about it with the level of passion you’ve expressed in your comment is a Very Good Sign that it will.

I wish you all the best. And I certainly hope you’ll stick around here, and continue to comment. For me (and I’m sure plenty of others) you add to the whole experience.

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  • raewagner

    I’ve been reading atheist blogs almost daily for years, but I’ve never commented. I just felt compelled to after reading your posts on fear. If it was possible for you to have plucked my thoughts straight from my brain and put them into words, I’d believe you did it. I’m so glad to hear it from someone else. It’s all too easy to feel like a one-man island.

    Keep doing what you’re doing. I’ll just pull up a chair and keep reading.

  • fastlane

    Another great post. I’m curious about how much of everyday fear we feel comes from socialization, and how much is inherent. And most importantly to me, how much it can be affected in either direction by our experiences?

    For instance, I have a decent amount of social fears. I’ve never been in a ‘real’ fight since high school, and I’ve done everything I can to avoid them all my life. I think most of that came from two things grwoing up:
    1) My dad (I was raised by my dad), who would punish us boys (I’m the middle of three boys) for fighting, regardless of whether we were just defending ourselves or not.
    2) My older brother, who was a classic bully. Significantly larger than me, and always big for his age, he picked on me constantly, and it never helped standing up to him, and my dad never was around to help. (I was practically a feral child from ages 8-12, which is a whole ‘nother story.)

    Oddly, I’ve been studying martial arts since I lived in Okinawa, and I’ve got a black belt, so I’ve been in lots of sparring matches and simulated fights, but I still fear another ‘real’ fight. As much because I could realy hurt someone else as I could potentially get hurt.

    I have a lot of social fears regarding women that I think are a little more than normal, but not so much as other friends I know.

    The flip side is that I’m a bit of a daredevil in other ways. I love to fly (although I haven’t got my pilot’s license yet), I ride and race motorcycles, I mountainbike in some crazy places, and other things like that.

    Those to me seem like completely different kinds of fear, and I am affected by them totally differently.

    I wonder if most people we would consider brave in some situations would be scared shitless in others? I’m betting we all have fears of that sort, but they might be vastly different.

  • anthonyallen

    Holy shit, Hank!

    I sit here daily reading and wondering what to say, and how to say it, and how it will be received, and here you go and write 2 entire posts inspired by my comments, one of them a direct reply! That’s the greatest honor a blogger can give to one of his faithful readers, and I thank you for that.

    Way to turn my world completely upside-down! You’ve given me a lot to think about. You’re a man that I respect and admire already, and in 2 days you have increased that respect tenfold. I sincerely hope to meet you and shake your hand one day.

    Re: “relative bigness”

    I can certainly relate. All my life I’ve looked at others and wondered how they can be so calm, so sure of themselves; and how I, though I am older, can be such a child. There are days when I feel like I’m a perpetual 12-year-old. But that’s not always a bad thing. I’ve lived here in the “big city” for about 4 months, now, and there are still things I see when I wander that catch my eye and I geek out over. Like how the “tower” is now among the shortest buildings in the downtown core, for instance.
    But I’ve also been on the other side, as well. The “safe” job that I alluded to earlier is at a university library, and undergrads often look to me for guidance and support.

    @judykomorita:

    For instance, when we see a beautiful/handsome person that we desire, we may get that same rush of adrenaline. We feel those same symptoms, and since we *associate* those symptoms with fear, we assume we are being fearful — when we may not be.

    This is what prompted my first comment on the subject, actually. I had recently went on a date and we had a surprisingly good time. A day later, I had the feelings that you described, and perhaps I misinterpreted them as the fear that I’m so familiar with.

    So, I’m going to follow up and ask her out again. And I’m going to the secular discussion group tomorrow night. Because, really, what can I lose, except all the crap that I don’t really want.

    -A-

    • anthonyallen

      PS: Hank, you may be a “doofus,” but you are by far the smartest dumb guys I have the pleasure of knowing. ;)

      -A-

    • Hank Fox

      There are days when I feel like I’m a perpetual 12-year-old. But that’s not always a bad thing. I’ve lived here in the “big city” for about 4 months, now, and there are still things I see when I wander that catch my eye and I geek out over.

      One of my Wise Old Sayings:

      Inside each of us is the person we were when we were 5 years old, and the one we were at the age of 10. There’s a 13-year-old, and an 18-year-old. There’s another of us that’s 25, 30, 35, on and on. Real maturity is being comfortable with all those selves, and being unashamed on occasion to BE each one again.

      It’s probably complete bullshit, but it does give me an excuse to act like a kid again, sometimes. When I go to animated movies, or the midnight showing of the latest superhero flick, I’m often the oldest one there. But hey …

      And best of luck in some of these new adventures!

      • judykomorita

        I am so stealing that wise old saying, Hank (giving you full credit of course)!

        People make fun of the idea of an “inner child” but I’ve always found it to be undeniable.

      • hauntfox

        A side note quotation to accompany your side note regarding maturity (which I wasn’t actually going to post until I read your next thread…. thanks for the encouragement):

        Maturity is knowing when and where to be immature

        I think it was my middle school band teacher who said that, but it’s stayed with me through the 12 years since (yup, I’m a bit of a young’un)

    • judykomorita

      Excellent decision, Anthony. I hope it works out!
      Now I need to get off my duff and go to the local atheist meetups that I’ve been avoiding. Not much I can lose if I go.

  • Dunc

    One of the most important things to learn about life is that nobody really knows what they’re doing. We’re all winging it and hoping nobody notices.

  • martha

    Fastlane @2

    “The flip side is that I’m a bit of a daredevil in other ways.”

    A couple of people on the previous thread mentioned the Highly Sensitive Person idea. I heard one of the HSP talkers on the radio and distinctly remember her saying that HSP’s are likely to be thrill seekers. I wish I knew if there’s any real science behind that theory, because it describes myself and my daughter to a T. I went through period of deliberately doing crazy things that didn’t fit my cautious persona and boy did it feel good. I see my daughter acting the same way- 3/4 of the time she’s hyper cautious, easily upset and a bit moralistic: “Mom, are you sure you’re going the speed limit? Why do protestors have to say so many mean things on their signs?” but every so often she gets a shit-eating grin and starts saying outrageous things just to get our goats, baiting her agressive little sister instead of cringing, and so on. This is so striking a shift that we call her Light Phoenix/Dark Phoenix (except we use her name). Also she’s always been the child who took the most physical risks on the playground.

    “I have a lot of social fears regarding women.”

    Consider that they may be just as scared of you?
    When I was college age, I assumed men ruled the universe and could do anything they wanted. It didn’t remotely occur to me that they might feel intimdiated by women. Thankfully, things have moved on a bit since then


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