The Double-Edged Sword of Fear

I’ve been reading through some old posts on the excellent A Girl and Her Gun blog (if you aren’t following her, you should be), and I came across this one which talks about Colin Goddard, who survived the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007.

There’s lots of great info in the post, so I’ll let you (and strongly encourage you to) read it, but I wanted to pick up a thread of thought that really jumped out at me: Fear is a double-edged sword.

Gavin de Becker, the well-known security consultant, wrote a terrific book some years back. Titled The Gift of Fear, it talks about the benefits that come from acknowledging fear. Fear, says de Becker, is our natural early warning system, and fear produces the awareness and vigilance that keeps us safe. Our minds are highly tuned to pattern recognition, and the alarm bells of fear jangle when we see the patterns that have, in our past, warned us of danger. If we respond to fear in a healthy way, by noticing what’s triggering it, performing a mental risk analysis, and offering a appropriate response, we increase our chances of survival.

Fear, though, has a dark side, in my view. You see, fear is a product of our brain’s intuitive, instinctive pattern recognition engine. So what happens when the event that triggers our fear response is not part of any meaningful pattern? We can learn that the little dents in the sand are a lion’s footprints. We can sense the depressions in the grass where the bear’s passed by. But burglars and rapists and other two-legged predators actively try to mask the patterns that might cost them the element of surprise. Mass murderers act from disordered thinking patterns that defy logical analysis. Our brain is not well adapted to deal with the absence of patterns, and when we try, our natural evolved survival responses go haywire.

Faced with a pattern that is incomprehensible to us (or, faced with no pattern at all), our mind struggles to make sense of the experience, to identify new rules that would help us next time a threat is detected.

The healthy among us look at this new data and say, “some predators defy patterns, and therefore I must be always watchful. I must develop my awareness so I can spot these predators when they appear, and I must equip myself with the tools to defend against this new, unpredictable threat.”

Others, though, become locked in a mental cycle of trying to make a pattern emerge, and they seize upon irrelevancies to invent a pattern. “If only I never wear a short skirt,” they may tell themselves, “I’ll be safe.” Or, perhaps it’s “if only I stay out of bars, I’ll be safe.” Mr. Goddard’s attempt to understand the incomprehensible, to find a pattern where none exists, led him to say “if only guns could be banned, I’ll be safe.”

There are two problems with going down this cognitive rabbit hole. First of all, the illusory patterns we think we see aren’t real, and so in them lies no solution for us. Throwing away our miniskirts, staying out of bars, and banning guns won’t help us stay safe, because these things were not the real harbingers of trouble. These are the wrong solutions because our minds – adapted by millennia of evolution to seek patterns – have identified the wrong antecedents as central to the problem.

More important, though, is that once we come to believe these cognitive dead ends, we short circuit the thinking process that should take us to “I need to be more situationally aware and give myself meaningful tools for self-defense.” Once we conclude the skirt, or the drink, or the gun, is to blame, we stop looking for better explanations for the pattern, and we stop looking for better solutions. And the irony is that mass murderers like Cho Seung-Hui are rare enough so that these wrong conclusions are rarely tested. We might go through our whole lives without having to discover that our minds have taken us through the wrong tunnel and that the “solutions” we’ve identified offer no solutions at all.

Frankly, I hope Mr. Goddard is lucky enough that he never has to discover firsthand that his brain, adapted and attuned to a very different sort of threat than the one he faced that day, has taken him down an evolutionary rabbit hole. I hope he never again has to stare down the barrel of a gun. I hope he never has to face that soul-crushing moment of realization that, without any meaningful way to defend himself, surrender is the only option he has left.

I know, though, how dangerous counting on luck can be. Lightning can and does strike twice. I’m living proof of that, and I know now with crystal clarity that I am not prepared to sit back and let it strike a third time. I am not prepared to lull myself into a false sense of security. If I am ever again in that terrible moment of surrendering myself to the mercies of a monster, it will be because I’ve exhausted my other options and have made a judgment that submission presents the best chance of survival. It will not be because I never had any other options to begin with,

This is the lesson fear teaches us. Harnessed and understood for what it is, it empowers us to care for our own safety and our own survival. Misinterpreted and ignored, it lulls us into a false sense of security and makes us easy prey for those that would victimize us.

Which path will you go down?


  1. Thanks for the link.
    DeBecker’s book is a fabulous, fabulous book!

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