In recent times, I have developed a keen interest in go-karting and watching Formula 1. Sitting low down in the cockpit, the track set out before you; the concomitant, pungent warehouse smells of oil and sweat assailing your senses; the heat from groaning engines swirling beneath your visor as you hold onto the wheel, remembering all the health and safety instructions and regulatory (British government risk-assessed) minutiae the marshals thrust upon you mere minutes before you are given the green light to zoom! into the action.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t see how all of this could overwhelm people, but I have found within myself a deep, burgeoning passion.
And then, conversely, there is the rollercoaster.
To speed along a track, breaking into turns at the last moment, smashing through the apex with great celerity whilst on the ground, is a great thrill for me.
Being fifty feet above the ground in a capsule that is being tossed around tracks that feel rickety and unstable, even if in peak condition, is something quite diametrical. Something I find daunting. Terrifying.
Presumably, I’m afraid of heights – a claim I feel can be reinforced based on aeroplane journeys where I’ve looked out of the porthole windows and felt my stomach knot and churn and my thoughts plague me with a plethora of possibilities – engine failure, terrorists crashing the plane, fuel shortages – which would all lead to a sudden plummet to earth, and my death.
Doubts and worries are pervasive by nature. We all have fears. Some rational, some irrational. I’m not just afraid of heights, but also snakes.
My usual day consists of waking up, having a small breakfast before doing some reading; lunch before my writing, dinner, and perhaps some time gaming. In between, I’ll be in touch with friends via text, or social networks. Rarely do I have to stand atop a skyscraper, seemingly at the zenith of Earth’s atmosphere, and look down while my devious inner self informs me: Jump Shaun, you can fly! Neither, thank all the gods, does my regular day allow time for me to be in close proximity to any serpents. Of course, I’ve stood on the other side of (what I hope) is a thick glass pane while a snake slithers slowly along a branch in a zoo’s reptile house. Such creepy places, they are. So many tanks littered with sand and gravel and plants that many of these creatures (that I probably don’t know the scientific names of) are able to camouflage around. Obfuscation is the work of the dastardly indeed.
Is it the strange, lattice-like scales that make me cringe? Perhaps their tongues, sometimes bifurcated, are the source of my fear? The ugly, pale yellows and greens that some snakes are hued? Or, like in my nightmares, the way they slither. One instant, it is a slow, unhurried movement, which I (in my head) attribute to the dark, fat snakes; the next moment, their motion is much quicker, which I can usually tag on the ones I’ve seen jumping from tree to tree and gliding along rivers in the television documentaries. They remain in one place for but a fugacious moment.
Whatever the reason might be, I cannot pinpoint it. Nearly all humans have a fear. Be it towards an animal, such as a snake, or more commonly, spiders. Heights are a common fear, too. Many people are afraid of the dark, some of the light! If you have ever watched a documentary on phobias, you’ll know that, occasionally, people are rocked to their core by quaint things, such as eggs or water. Bizarre, huh?
The reality is, it is easy to prevaricate about some trait, feature or characteristic of these objects of our fear and how the slither of a snake or the scurry of a spider or the unknowable unknown of the darkness is what drives us to a quivering panic. However, let us shout against ease for a moment, and think of fear as a broader concept, rather than simply individual responses.
Much of my pontificating and blogging and online –and offline, alas for my friends and family – has focused on the human condition. A concept that develops as we do, because we as a species are ever evolving in our understanding of ourselves, yes? What is the human condition? A series of quasi-accepted rules (would “laws” be too formal?) that have been founded on the trial and error of sympathy and empathy?
If you are a dog owner, and you ask somebody, “Is there an animal you are scared by or of?” and they respond with, “Sure, dogs!”, firstly, you should probably tighten the leash holding your Rottweiler, and secondly, if you were hoping like yourself that they fear spiders, the ability for you and they to now empathise with one another has grown diminutive.
Why? Well, a dog owner is almost certain to be a person comfortable around dogs no matter their size, appearance or ferocity. This isn’t always the case, because the owner of a small dog (or a small dog owner, for that matter!) might be as intimidated by a German Shepherd or Rhodesian Ridgeback as the next person. Yet if, like above, you own a Rottweiler or another big dog, it is unlikely you’ll turn to the person with cynophobia and say, “Gosh, I know how you feel,” placing a hand to your chest, your eyes narrowing as you cast all thoughts back to a dark and harrowing experience with a canine that caused you to fear dogs. You might have been bitten in the past, don’t let me rule that out, but you’ve clearly faced and overcome your fear, haven’t you?
What has occurred, then, is time. Time, alas, is a leveller. You can no longer truly say you share, only that you shared, their fear. Memories decay, fracture and dissipate until we might have only thin threads that are sewn back to equally thin threads every once a year, when somebody mentions that dreaded haunt we buried so long ago.
During a high school assembly, an older student I remember seeing only in that one assembly, had brought her mother and pet snake as part of a show and tell. The snake was innocuous, supposedly. She permitted the damned thing to coil around her and then at the end she replaced it into a tank and people were allowed to go up closer and take a look. I made what I hope was a dignified dash to my next class. Was she ever afraid of snakes, I’ll never know. Had I been offered any chance to go near the reptile, no matter how harmless, I’d have said No.
If you can empathise with a person, then you are not just resolving within yourself to understand their fear, but you are offering them the reassurance that they are not isolated from society by this phobia. To empathise is to share your feelings in a bond of mutual understanding that will, I suppose, manifest itself into something the empathiser wants to aid the “empathisee” with. The irony being that this manifestation is abstract, and might only be a smile or a shared look. Just something that allows us to feel for that person in such a way that they can reciprocate the smile, renewed by the knowledge that people understand what they are going through. Isolation can be pernicious if triggered by a seeming abnormality. To openly admit to cynophobia, in a world where dogs are heavily domesticated animals, could lead to social ridicule, directed ignorance and stigmatic labels. None of which is fair. Had I gone near that snake, and had to say in front of my friends and peers, “I’m scared of snakes,” I suspect I’d have been tormented for it. Maybe for merely an hour or so, but ridicule is unwanted no matter how fleeting or interminable.
What is my suggestion, here? That all people with acrophobia should stand atop a skyscraper and look down, and after a few minutes of this collective resilience, we should each cheer as we overcome our phobia in the here and now? Not so much. More that, when facing fears, perhaps a shared feeling from somebody else, a friend or not, just anybody who can say “me too”, is the best armour there is; there are so many fears out there, within so many of us – could we just not take a step closer and give each other a reassuring smile?
Perhaps sharing fear alone is enough to empathise, truly. Do I believe that?
I don’t know.
Dangerous Risk by epSos.de at Flickr Creative Commons
This article originally appeared at Fractured Paths