There is Only a Fear of Death

I had visions of the grim reaper attacking me as a young paratrooper.

I’d see myself from the back dressed in camouflage with a small knife by my side and the reaper engulfing me from the front. He moved like smoke and his darkness engulfed everything. I never won or lost – but it was always a fight. These visions started during my work-up trainings before deploying to Afghanistan. We were preparing to arrive in Panjwai which is the spiritual home of the Taliban. I was in constant contemplation about death and how I felt about it. Personifying death was one of my tactics to deal with that. Or even worse… if I were mangled by an IED. I gave my fear form and this gave me power over it.

We humans are wired to fear death and we experience this fear on a daily basis. Whether you’re dodging bullets or dodging traffic, your fear of death is activated.

We have powerful primal sensory organs fueling a highly sensitive limbic system along with a complex network of neurons, neurotransmitters, and a cocktail of hormones. But we also have the most evolved cerebral cortex on the planet (some bigger than others). This big cortex gifts us with the awareness of our own awareness which means we know we could die at any time for a multitude of reasons we cannot control.

Consider your greatest fears. It could be a fear of people seeing you fail, a fear of disappointing those you love, a fear of messing up your kids. As we now live in the safest time in history, our convoluted fears like the ones I just mentioned are by-products of luxury – yet still rooted in the primal fear of death.

What about the common fear of public speaking? How does that translate into a fear of death?

We’re creatures that have adapted co-exist in groups for better chances of survival. In our more primal days, showing a weakness in such a public and grand manner could mean that we’re not useful to the tribe. Being banished from the tribe would mean certain death. Now that’s a mostly illogical situation in today’s modern Western world, but our roots run deep which is why so many individuals rank their fear of public speaking over something more realistic like heart disease. 

This amazing adaptation/modern curse is known as Terror Management Theory which was developed in 1986 by social psychologists Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon. Interesting stuff.

I’d really only like to take a look at one bit of the theory in particular:

The anxiety-buffering function of self-esteem is established by studies where momentarily elevated self-esteem results in lower self-reported anxiety and physiological arousal.” — Ernest Becker

The prefrontal cortex plans complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. It’s the tool we use to overcome fear. We will always have some form of fear response to the appropriate stimuli but when we can control our arousal response, we can control fear. This is done through exposure to new experiences. 

To overcome your fears, you must personally survive them. 

“Experience is the best teacher” — Julius Ceasar

The more you expose yourself to unexpected arousal spikes, the better you will deal with them. And the great part is, these lessons bleed into normal life as well. The school of hard knocks will teach you decisiveness, bravery, and wisdom in a world where comfort is king and retreating from illogical fears are at an all-time high.  

“The more voluntary suffering you build into your life, the less involuntary suffering will affect your life.” — Tim Ferris

I grabbed that last quote out of Cadre Rick Alexander’s book “Burn Your Couch”. Rick has just recently retired from the Navy Seals and just finished a 200 mile run with weighted body armor for charity AND was mugged at gunpoint in the middle of that race AND still finished. He knows the power of stepping out of his comfort zone.

Every heavy hitter in history has something similar to say. Exposure, or being out of your comfort zone, leads to improved self-esteem and confidence to do more, bigger, and better. This improved self-esteem leads to the thoughts that help you overcome adversity and live a healthier richer life with purpose. Improved self-esteem is the buffer to combat anxiety and arousal levels.

But the secret is that it can mostly only be found through forms of suffering. Combine the difficulty of getting out of your comfort zone with the collective insecurity of the world with an underutilized fear response and you have a planet filled with sheep to scared to get off their couch.

Our modern western world is a statistically safe place. Get out of your comfort zone and FIGHT your fear. 

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