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Fear And Worry

( Originally Published 1908 )



FEAR is one of our most elemental and primitive emotions. Indeed the biologist assures us that along with Surprise it was the first to be developed, as the feeling of the Ludicrous was the last. Fear is common to all forms of animal existence, even the lowest. Darwin says that the earth-worm knows fear and darts into its burrow like a rabbit when alarmed. This universality of fear has come about through the working of the law of natural selection which prescribes that only those creatures survive that best adjust themselves to their environment. Without fear no organism could survive, for no organism could relate itself to the hostile forces in its environment. The animal that feared rightly increased its chances of survival, whereas the animal that feared wrongly weakened the forces that made for self-preservation. Within limits, then, fear as a primary instinct has been and is eminently useful. It is the cry of alarm raised by the senses which act as the guardians of the body; and at the signal, in virtue of the nervous automatism, the organism is put in a position of defense. Yet this is only half the truth. If it is an advantage to the animal organism, it is also a disadvantage. For example, it has been observed that many birds, though scarcely wounded ,by small shot, fall to the ground as though struck by lightning, panting, with wide-open eyes. Then again it often happens that the fear which prompts efforts to escape a threatened danger turns out to fail of its purpose. We know also that in human life fear, beyond a certain point, becomes an intolerable curse. It excites to activity, and at the same time tends to paralyze this very activity. At best, it would appear to be a clumsy device of Nature to preserve the species.

Man inherits fear from his sub-human ancestry. The new-born babe fears. Every mother and every nurse knows the instinctive fear of falling shown by the infant on her knee. In this tendency and in the babe's power of clutch, the biologist sees a survival of the time when man was an arboreal animal and when he put his young to sleep on the branches of trees or on ledges of rock. "The fear," says Mosso, "which children have of dogs and cats, before they have learnt why they are to be feared, is a consequence of heredity; even later, when they have gained some experience, they are overcome with fear at the sight of sucking pups or kittens, which would be ridiculous if it were not an innate aversion." 1 We are born, then, to a heritage of fear. Some dreads we out-grow; to others we are in lifelong bondage. Fear in man has a wider field than in the animal, just ,as man's nature is higher and more complicated than the animal's. Man is a being of "such large discourse, looking before and after," and to the fears of the sense he adds those of conscience and imagination. It is true that optimistic voices would reassure us with the glad news that science is gradually abolishing fears and that before its steady advance the dark shadows that scare the soul will flee away. But such a boast is of the vainest. Science does not change the amount of fear; she but redistributes it. The fears of superstition and ignorance vanish before her presence, only however to be replaced by those of truth and knowledge. If we fear ghosts and demons less, we fear microbes and bacteria more. Witches and warlocks no longer affright us, but tuberculosis and cancer cannot be laughed away. And if science can do something to combat pathological fears, she has no healing word for the dreads that originate in the moral and spiritual nature, the self-fear that debases life, the specter of guilt that will not down.

Who can classify the fears of man or woman? They are as multitudinous as are their desires. Perhaps what a woman fears most is wrinkles and so she has resource to cosmetics, and rouge-pots and "beauty-doctors" in vain attempts to ward off the enemy, forgetting the hygiene of the soul that alone makes winsome ,the "human face divine." The professional man or the business man fears failure. Now up to a certain point this fear is a good; it is an incentive to action. Beyond this point it is an evil and works only harm. So, too, with the public speaker. He fears his hearers and so is nervous; only thus does he bend them to his will. But let him be over-nervous, the spell is broken, his speech evokes pity, or contempt, and his effort is a failure. Hence the man of business or of art should not let his fears conquer his judgment; he must by self-discipline turn them into a steadying and solemnizing influence which may act as a re-enforcement to his active powers. Men are bound to fear, but the fear should stimulate, not enslave. It is significant that, as Starbuck has shown, fear as a motive in conversion is fifteen times as great as hope. It would seem, then, that we must distinguish between fears that are normal and fears that are abnormal. Normal fears, that is, fears which are common to all healthy minds, may and often do become abnormal, and are then symptomatic of a disordered nervous state. But there are also fears which have no counterpart in healthy minds. Where the line is to be drawn between normal and abnormal dreads, who can say?

Stanley Hall in his remarkable "Study of Fears" wisely remarks: "There is no one without fear, and those few who so emphatically disclaim all fear, and the psychologists who tabulate the percentage of fearless people, are thinking of shock or panic or acute fright, or special physical dread, but not of the subtler forms, like fear of God, of dishonor, failure of their highest purposes, for themselves or others. Not only does everyone fear, but all should fear. The pedagogic problem is not to eliminate fear, but to gauge it to the power of proper reaction. Fears that paralyze some brains are a good tonic for others. In some form and degree, all need it always. Without the fear apparatus in us, what a wealth of motive would be lost! Aristotle's conception of education, as learning to fear in due proportion those things worthy of being feared, would not serve badly as a definitive also of courage." Men are bound to fear, but they should not merely fear. The good man in the presence of a moral temptation is afraid and by his fear wins the victory; the fool, not knowing that there is anything to fear, falls struck through with a dart. To enumerate the fears that afflict otherwise healthy minds would be a tedious task. Fear of lightning is said to be the most common, yet its groundless character is proved by the insignificant percentage of deaths caused by lightning. Fear of darkness is the standing misery of childhood, especially of imaginative and delicately organized child-hood. A well-known novelist describes the sufferings from this cause of her hero's boyhood. "Every night brought its own distinct horror. The black dormitory was full of murderous visions that he dared not look upon. Only the blanket lay between him and the wolves, the blood-stained daggers held by a severed hand in the air, the bat-like. old women measuring drops of poison into a cup. Awful indeed is the war of a child with darkness, when imagination is at its height, and reason is scarcely born in him. Even now, as he harked back to this period, he could not recall it without a shudder. `Childhood a happy time! What do they mean who say so?"

Some fears persist through youth into adult life. They seem to root themselves so deeply in the memory that even the greatest vicissitudes, the most revolutionary changes in experience, leave them untouched. "Every ugly thing told to the child, every shock, every fright given him, will remain like minute splinters in the flesh, to torture him all his life long. An old soldier, when I asked what his greatest fears had been, answered me thus: `I have only had one, but it pursues me still. I am nearly seventy years old, I have looked death in the face I do not know how many times, I have never lost heart in any danger, but when I pass a little old church in the shades of the forest, or a deserted chapel in the mountains, I always remember a neglected oratory in my native village, and I shiver and look around, as though seeking the corpse of a murdered man which I once saw carried into it when a child, and with which an old servant wanted to shut me up to make me good."

How may this fear of the dark be cured or at least mitigated? Not certainly by coercion or scolding. Such measures only aggravate the trouble. First of all, the child should not be allowed to hear or to read stories or legends of an exciting character. All morbidity of imagination should be checked and the mind strengthened and developed by simple, practical, scientific reading. With the growth and maturing of the body many of these childish fears gradually disappear. Hence the need for open-air exercise, nutritious food, and the avoidance of an over-stimulation of the brain by too much mental work. Finally, a few reassuring suggestions administered in a firm voice to the child when he is in a half-waking, half-sleeping state, will be found to be of the greatest value. Happily the child-mind is most amen-able to suggestion.

A very wide-spread fear, especially in adolescence, is fear of disease. This secret and intense dread often causes nervous disorders so that, as Stanley Hall says, if the mind can cure the diseases it can make in adolescence, it can do much. Perhaps the greatest cause of this fear is too much attention to passing sensations. A slight palpitation of the heart is so magnified by attention being fixed on it that the subject begins to fear he is developing angina pectoris. A student has, perhaps, overworked his brain, or has, from one cause or another, fallen into a neurasthenic state, with its concomitant depression, lack of volitional power, psychic pains in the head and so forth, and becomes seized with the idea that he is about to lose his reason. This dread, of course, only deepens his morbidity, though observation goes to prove that the dread is rarely justified. The sufferer should reassure himself by the reflection that this, like all other morbid fears, is the symptom merely of a nervous state, is mental in character and can therefore be suppressed by the manipulation of thought. The rule, then, is: Morbid thoughts can be driven out only by other and healthy ones. Substitute for the fear the thought of some duty not yet achieved, or the thought of the Divine presence which is near us alike in our going out and in our coming in. Cultivate that condition of mind which, conscious of God's fatherly regard, feels safe in His hands, and is willing to meet good or evil as He wills it. In a word, re-educate yourself, morally and spiritually. Summon the forces of your nature against this debasing fear, and through prayer, through obedience to law moral and law physiological, through concentration on some enter-prise that carries you beyond your petty interests, win back the gift of self-control which is the secret of every life worth living.

Of all the fears that visit middle age, one of the most frequently encountered is fear of poverty. There are amiable writers who spend much ink in proving that poverty is no evil. Indeed, if we are to believe these optimistic souls, poverty so far from being an ill to be avoided is rather a blessing to be prized. There is a grain of truth at the bottom of their contention. And this -grain is that there are evils worse than poverty. The woman who sells her soul for diamonds and thereby places dishonorable ease above honorable poverty, commits, it is agreed, both a sin and a blunder. Yet if poverty, as Juvenal says, makes us ridiculous, if it means dependence, loss of friendship, forfeiture of established position, physical discomfort, sup ression of intellectual desires, frustration of worthy ambitions, lack of self-respect and the respect of one's neighbors — and poverty beyond a certain point means all this — then it must be esteemed an evil, though we cannot agree with Christian Science in regarding it as a moral offense. A whiff of Dr. Samuel Johnson's robust common-sense suffices to dissipate the sophistries of those who think otherwise: "Sir, all the arguments which are brought to represent poverty as no evil show it to be evidently a great evil. You never find people laboring to convince you that you may live very happily upon a plentiful fortune." Let it be granted, then, that in the hierarchy of mischiefs that vex humanity, poverty has a place, though the place is not so high as many think, what are we to do? Are we to let this fact breed a morbid fear which will curse our lives, make hard the heart, shut our ears to the cry of distress, and degrade the whole man into a self-centered, grasping money-grubber? Then shall we become poor indeed. That the fear is often the mark of an unhealthy mind cannot be questioned. Said a very intelligent man to the writer: "I am haunted with the fear that I will end my days in the poor-house. The thought fills me with an unutterable depression, and makes work impossible." And yet the man who so spoke had over one hundred thou-sand dollars invested in " gilt-edged securities." A healthy fear of indigence will lead to prudence, industry, thrift, to such measures as will secure one's personal independence. Having done honest work, making the while such provision as is possible for old age or sickness or for those dependent upon us, let us in faith leave the rest to Providence before whom a sparrow's fall is not without regard, and let us comfort ourselves with the witness of ancient piety: "I once was young and now am old; and never yet have I seen the righteous forsaken or his seed begging bread."

There is one fear which is absolutely universal: it is the fear of death. In the strict sense, one must be human in order to feel it. Originating as a blind instinct unconscious of its end in our animal ancestry, it has deepened and widened with the growth of mind and imagination until to-day it seems the master evil of the world. The animal knows pain and fears it: man, alone able to project himself into the future, knows the deep mystery of death, from which he draws back, but into which he must pass. Around this mystery have gathered the superstitious fears of ages bred of an undisciplined imagination, and even Christian theology cannot be acquitted of adding the spiritual pangs with which generations have gone down into the grave. Sad is the reflection that there are millions obsessed with an intense and secret fear of death which takes the zest out of existence, and makes the heavens gray. They cannot take hold of life with both hands, for the fear of death inhibits them.

Now when we analyze this fear, we find that it consists of several elements. (1) The instinctive or animal shrinking from death. This in a certain measure is normal; without it the race would soon disappear. It is a mark of our animal nature, and as such is necessary for the preservation of the individual. As animals, then, we rightly shrink from dissolution; but as human beings, called to organize our life on a moral basis, it is our prerogative to subordinate this fear to ethical ends. And as a matter of fact, we know that mighty as is this organic instinct, "there is no passion," as Lord Bacon remarks, "in the mind of man so weak but it mates and masters the fear of death; and therefore death is no such terrible enemy when a man hath so many attendants about him that can win the combat for him." (2) Associated with this instinctive repugnance is horror at the physical accompaniments of death. The closed eyes, the stilled heart, the rigid form, and then the gloomy pageant of the funeral, the burial in the pent-up prison of the grave, the slow decay of the body, "the changes wrought on form and face" — all these lay hold of the imagination and fill it at times with unutterable misery. And yet a little reflection shows that we are here simply the victims of an illusion. We imagine ourselves undergoing these experiences which exist, however, only for the living. "Nothing, if we truly realize it, is less real than the grave. We should be no more concerned with the after fate of our discarded bodies than with that of the hair which the hair-cutter has cut off. The sooner they are resolved into their primitive elements the better. The imagination should never be suffered to dwell upon their decay." 1 (3) Fear of pain in the hour of death. We speak of the "last agony." And the phrase has helped to perpetuate the idea that apart from the symptoms of a given disease, there is some mysterious pain in the act of dying. But as a normal and natural event, our end is probably as painless as our beginning. Medical science assures us that no special misery is felt by the dying. Nature administers her own anæsthetic and the end is, as a rule, peace. Professor Osler in his Ingersoll lecture on "Immortality" says: "I have careful records of about five hundred death-beds, studied particularly with reference to the modes of death, and the sensations of the dying. The latter alone concern us here. Ninety suffered bodily pain or distress of one sort or another." Here it will be rioted that though one sixth or so of the observed cases suffered physical pain, this pain was not connected with the act of dying but with the disease which ended in death. Another distinguished student of medicine writes: "I would have the reader take the word of one who has witnessed many and various deaths that the term `death-agony' does not correspond to any fact. The immediate cause of death, in all but very exceptional cases, such as accident, is the poisoning of the nervous centers by carbonic gas, which accumulates in the blood owing to the failure of the arrangements for its removal. Normal death, if the phrase be permitted, is a painless occurrence, usually preceded by a gradual loss of consciousness, en-tailing no more suffering than going to sleep, which it most closely resembles, literally as well as poetically."

The truth is that unworthy fear of death is banished when we sink deep into our minds the thought that death is as much a part of the divine order of the world as life, and that therefore for all God's creatures it means not evil but good. The approach of the end may work grief and pain in the beholders, but to the dying, apart from accident or other abnormal forms of death, it is received not with resentment but with acquiescence and in the majority of instances with relief. We do not dislike the interruption of consciousness which we call sleep. No more will we resent that deeper interruption which we call death. Until our hour comes, faith in the Divine goodness, combined with an active love of service to our fellowmen, with a sinking of our own petty personality in the interests of the larger world to which we belong, will slowly but surely emancipate us from this as from all other degrading fears. He who knows how to live will know how to die.

There is a type of fear which may take hold even of the healthy mind, though it is often also the sign of a pathological state of the nervous system. It is the type to which the term "Worry" is applied. It is almost unnecessary to describe it: the futile regret over past mistakes, past follies and past sins, the miserable fore-casting of the future, the constantly bearing with us, not only the real sorrows of the present but the imaginary sorrows of what might have been or what may yet be. These are the cursed forces that lay hold upon the soul, shake it to its center, while the cross currents of thought are flowing to and fro without aim and without an end, and life threatens "to grow into one tissue of impossibilities." "Worry," says Dr. Beard,' "is the one great shortener of life under civilization; and of all forms of worry the financial is the most frequent and for ordinary minds the most distressing. Merchants now make, always have made, and probably always will make, most of the money of the world; but business is attended with so much risk and uncertainty and consequent anxiety that merchants die sooner than physicians and lawyers." The philosophers would comfort us with the reflection that to worry is the sole prerogative of man. The animal does not worry. Shelley envies the skylark his power of giving himself up to the joy of the moment and contrasts therewith his own faculty of sorrow:

"We look before and after
And pine for what is not,
And our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught."

This power to look before and after is the expression of man's self-consciousness of his ability to identify himself under , all the changes of the past, present, and future. As a man rises in the scale of personality, he is the more prone to live in the past and in the future; to be content with the present alone is the mark of the animal mind. Thus worry is the shadow cast by man's moral and intellectual greatness and, as Pascal says, "the grandeur of man is also his misery." Important as is this reflection, it carries us but a little way, for the insistent question is, how can we conserve our ethical and rational character and yet not worry ? Now it is here that psychology rightly claims to help us, and religion will help us even more. As springing out of the fundamental postulate of the pro-found unity of mind and body, psychology warns against the influence of fatigue on the nervous sytsem. Often worry is the result of overwork and oftener still of ill-regulated work. Loss of power of memory, blunting of the sense perceptions, lessening of the inhibiting or checking energy of the will, instability and weakness of attention — these are the results of a sort of blood poisoning by the chemical products of overwork or wrongly-worked brain. These morbid states may grow to a certain point, and they then issue in neurasthenia, the almost invariable concomitant of which is extreme fatigue. Another hint which psychology offers us is the value of a wide circle of interests, if we would win the virtue of endurance and suffer with patience "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." It is sadly significant that our asylum populations are mainly recruited from the classes whose lives are spent in narrow monotonous surroundings. Hence the fixed ideas, the obsessions and generally the all-absorbing egotism of insanity. With a good store of valuable and permanent interests one is well safe-guarded against the attacks of worry. For if he is shut out from one channel of activity, he can work out his salvation in other directions. All his fortunes are not staked on one throw of the dice. Further, the root of the worrier's misery is lack of self-control. His greatest need, therefore, is moral re-education with a view to the co-ordination of his powers and the concentration of them on some worthy end. It is true that the emotions are not under the direct control of the will. Nevertheless, in-directly we can suppress or modify them by selecting the things to which we will give attention and the things selected will excite the appropriate emotion.

But it is in religion that we find the most powerful antidote to worry. Dr. Saleeby has pointed out that the two greatest religions the world has ever seen, Buddhism and Christianity, are essentially anti-worrying religions, though reaching the goal indeed by very different routes.' Buddhism says, "Worry is an inevitable accompaniment of life. In order to get rid of it you must destroy the desire to live, and the goal of all being is Nirvana. It means absolute acquiescence; the end of worry because the end of life." Christianity, on the contrary, says, "The great need is not less, but a more abundant life. Worry is something that may be transcended, and the power by which you transcend it is trust in God and the service of man." Christ, because of His faith in the omnipotence of goodness, could utter his great saying, the standing rebuke to the distracted spirit, "Be not therefore anxious for the morrow, for the morrow will be anxious for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." It is not a theologian but our leading American psychologist, Professor James, who says, "The sovereign cure for worry is religious faith. The turbulent billows of the fretful surface leave the deep parts of the ocean undisturbed, and to him who has a hold of vaster and more permanent realities, the hourly vicissitudes of his personal destiny seem relatively insignificant things."



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