Existential Quandaries


Any football coach or motivational speaker can tell you that how one copes with fear is what it all comes down to. The courageous change the world. The cowards flutter about on the winds of outrageous fortune.

If faith is that thing which drives ordinary human beings to do extraordinary things, fear is its singular enemy. Fear is utterly irrational, always achieving the opposite of what it strives to accomplish. Those who fear that others will hate them behave untrusting until others hate them. Those who fear that they will die in the fire panic and die in the fire. Those who fear they will fail the test second-guess themselves and fail the test. In fact, fear is beyond pointless, it is purely destructive so it’s a wonder we humans have kept it around this long.

Of course, some say that without fear we wouldn’t know when to fight or flee. As if higher brain functions don’t know how to sort this question out by now without the help of visceral responses that drive a person to do stupid things. Well, I suppose everyone’s entitled to his-or-her theories. But for the rest of us it might be helpful to understand where fear comes from so that we can face it, conquer it, and go on to live more authentic lives.

I subscribe to the idea that all fear ultimately comes from doubts related to existence. (I'd like to give a nod here to Viktor Frankl and other existential theorists.)  Since such fears center around one’s ego, or the “I”, it’s helpful to remember the four basic existential fears as: fear of Impermanence, fear of Ignorance, fear of Isolation, and fear of Irrelevance.

Fear of impermanence is most common and relatively self-explanatory. It’s also the one that most people assume is rational, although it isn’t. One need not be afraid of premature death to avoid it and, in fact, as has already been suggested, one who doesn’t fear it will likely be better at avoiding it. Still, many problems that one wouldn’t think have anything to do with death are actually all about it. Many addictions, for example, ironically stem from individuals wishing to distract themselves from facing the reality of their own mortality.

Fear of ignorance is also very common. It is the fear, of course, that taken-for-granted aspects of one’s experience are actually all wrong. The classic manifestations of this fear are an unusual reluctance to admit when one is wrong and an unusual thrill in pointing out when others are wrong. As with all fear, this one tends to make one hate those who he-or-she perceives as having the same weaknesses as him-or-herself. In other words, the fear of ignorance in oneself is projected onto others who might be perceived as ignorant, and the self-hatred inspired by the fear is also projected outward.

Fear of isolation is the fear that one is alone, or will be. Paranoia in relationships of all kinds is the most common way this fear is played out. Strong reactions to small misunderstandings can be a dead giveaway with this one, since the person is not only reacting to the misunderstanding, but to the possibility that the misunderstanding betrays deep and dangerous problems in the relationship.

Fear of irrelevance is the worst of all. Discouragement and symptoms of depression are typical when one is consumed with this fear. It is the fear that no matter what one does, it doesn’t matter. One’s life, or perhaps all life, has no meaning. Violence can come about as a response to all of the fears, but from this one the violence can be particularly sociopathic.

Another particularly dangerous manifestation of the fear of irrelevance is when one inverts the fear and denies her-or-his strong sense of power and purpose. There are many who perceive that they have absolute power to improve their situations and the situations of others, but this power scares them. Then their lives become as if they lock themselves in a prison cell, but seeing that they still hold the key they comfort themselves in thinking that they are actually the ones outside the bars. No matter what one does to persuade these people to free themselves, they cannot understand because, in spite of their obvious suffering, they are thoroughly convinced that they are free already.

Fear is really an expression of powerlessness in relation to these four aspects of human life. Therefore, overcoming the fears in these areas involves feeling empowered in relation to them. For example, when people feel as though they have command over the direction in their lives, they typically don’t worry so much about how long they’re going to last. Likewise, when people come to terms with the fact that there is no catastrophe in being wrong, they typically stop worrying about it. In regard to relationships, realizing that what one is projecting onto others is really what one hates in oneself can be very liberating. And in regard to meaning, through introspection and interaction with others one can come to discover a deep meaning and purpose in life, or make peace with the purpose one has unwittingly been fighting.

Obviously, the key to all of this advancement in one’s consciousness is power. Without a faith in one’s own personal power, it is impossible for a person to overcome the deep existential fears that challenge every human being.


Reading something today about a study that suggests the "Amber Alert System" is not really effective, and that it has in fact social costs in creating a distorted sense of fear:

"Amber Alert and other measures 'generate the appearance, but not the fact, of crime control,' Griffin and Miller wrote. In so doing, such crime-fighting efforts reinforce misconceptions about what we should and shouldn't be afraid of....according to Fox, if we want to save children's lives, we'd do better to worry about loosely enforced bicycle helmet and seat-belt laws, or the safety standards of school buses - all of which are much more statistically dangerous but lack comparably high-profile systems for stoking public concern.

And, according to Griffin, even when children die at the hands of adults, it's usually not because they were stolen from their home - on the contrary, it's the home situation itself that's deadly.

'When a child dies, in the vast majority of cases it's going to be a kid you've never heard of in a part of town you've never gone,' he says. 'Savage beatings, drug abuse, kids not being fed, that type of crime happens far more often than the abduction and murder of little girls.'"


Four Kinds of Fears

I wonder if each person feels all four of these fears to different degrees or whether people tend to have an overarching fear that the other three feed into.  I can't identify feeling the fear of ignorance or irrelevance very much, but have had strong experiences of the other two.  Then I was thinking that more recently even that fear of impermanence has decreased.  Well actually all of them have, but the one that is still the strongest is the fear of isolation.  I really think of my experiences of the other three as all being versions of that one fear.  For instance if I fear doing the wrong thing (which I think would be fear of ignorance?)--it isn't actually about making a mistake, it's about being rejected because I've made a mistake.  A dominant fear I think I would associate with the descriptions of monsters in the myth-making structure.

Four Kinds of Fears

Heh, nice.

I've always thought it was logically safe to conclude that since everyone has the potential to express all 4 fears in the proper circumstance, that everyone has these fears rooted in them. Some levels of fear spike more often than others. Perhaps a dish of nature and nurture has a role in the levels one feels for each fear, and of course, if one chooses to overcome their fears.

Good point about the myth-making structure.

Thanks for posting this...

I found this encouraging. :)