When violence occurs, we may assume feelings like hatred, rage, or vengeance motivated the destructive acts. But more likely, fear is the impetus behind acting out. When humans feel threatened or at risk, our fear can propel us to lash out in an attempt to protect ourselves.
Fearing Fear Itself
We may like to believe that we are “different” than people who behave violently. We are more civilized, intelligent, self-controlled. We are rational and logical. Perhaps. But we all feel fear. We fear being outcast; we fear conflict and expressions of anger; we fear falling short or disappointing others; we fear physical and emotional pain. These feelings are universal to humanity, and we can recall instances when we ached with the pain of each potential threat. While most of us don’t react with physical violence when we are afraid, it isn’t difficult to imagine how a deep, pervasive and constant sense of being unsafe could leave someone vulnerable to striking out. Violence is never the answer, but fear will always be with us. We have the responsibility to respond to our fears — and others’ — in a way that heals and doesn’t hurt. And that starts with acknowledging our fear. Far from being shameful or weak, feeling fear is a protective response leftover from our reptilian ancestors. Fear wakes us up to threat, calls us to be aware and ready to fight, fly or freeze to survive. Without fear, our species would not have lasted long on this planet. Respecting and appreciating what fear has to teach us, without hurting ourselves or others, can promote deeper understanding and empathy for what it means to be human. By accepting that we do and will experience fear, we provide ourselves with the opportunity to choose our path, rather than react with impulsive action. Violence is a learned behavior; the experience of fear is not. When we can understand what triggers fear in others, we can approach them with options that offer safety and freedom to choose from a place of empowerment. When we identify our own fear triggers, we increase our empathy for one of the most tender of human experiences. Embracing fear is a path to knowing, and holding, and protecting each other.