Fear & the Imagination

If we understand our fears as stories, we may be able to conquer them.

For me, there was a certain irony in speaking about fear and the imagination at TEDGlobal because giving a TEDTalk was among the scariest things I could imagine doing. As a somewhat shy writer of fiction, I knew that calming my nerves would be hard. As I prepared for the TED stage, I tried, sometimes imperfectly, to follow my own advice about how to respond to the various fears that we imagine. So I began my talk with a story. And went on to live the narrative of my fear.

One day in 1819, 3,000 miles off the coast of Chile, in one of the most remote regions of the Pacific Ocean, 20 American sailors watched their ship flood with seawater. They’d been struck by a sperm whale, which had ripped a catastrophic hole in the ship’s hull.

As their ship began to sink beneath the swells, the crew huddled together in three small whaleboats.

These men were 10,000 miles from home and more than 1,000 miles from the nearest land. In their small boats, they carried only rudimentary navigational equipment and limited supplies of food and water. These were the men of the whale ship Essex, whose story would later inspire parts of Moby Dick.

Even in today’s world, their situation would be dire. But imagine how much worse it was then: No one on land had any idea that anything had gone wrong.

Most of us have never experienced a situation as frightening as the one in which these sailors found themselves, but we all know what it’s like to be afraid. We know how fear feels. But I’m not sure we think enough about what our fears mean.

As we grow up, we’re encouraged to think of fear as a weakness—just another childish thing to discard, like roller skates and baby teeth. And it’s no accident we think this way. Neuroscientists have shown that human beings are actually hardwired to be optimists.

Maybe that’s why we tend to think of fear as a danger in and of itself: “Don’t worry,” we say to one another. “Don’t panic.” In English, fear is something we “conquer.” It’s something we “fight.” It’s something we “overcome.”

But what if we tried to look at fear as an amazing act of the imagination, one that can be as profound and insightful as storytelling itself?

It’s easiest to see this link between fear and the imagination at work in young children, whose fears are often extraordinarily vivid. When I was a child, I lived in California, which is generally a pleasant place. But California could also be frightening. It was terrifying to watch the chandelier that hung above our dinner table swing back and forth during every minor earthquake. I sometimes couldn’t sleep, scared that the “big one” might hit at night. What we say about kids with these kinds of fears is that they have a “vivid imagination.”

But at a certain point, most of us learn to ignore these childhood visions. We learn that there are no monsters hiding under the bed and that not every earthquake brings buildings down.

But maybe it’s no coincidence that some of our most creative minds fail to rid themselves of these kinds of fears as adults. The same incredible imaginations that produced On the Origin of Species, Jane Eyre, and The Remembrance of Things Past also generated intense worries that haunted the adult lives of Charles Darwin, Charlotte Brontë, and Marcel Proust. So the question is, what can the rest of us learn about fear from visionaries and children?

Well, let’s return to the year 1819, for a moment, to the situation facing the crew of the whale ship Essex.

Twenty-four hours had passed since the sinking, and the time had come for the men to make a plan. They had very few options.

In his fascinating account of the disaster, In the Heart of the Sea, which is where I came across this story, Nathaniel Philbrick wrote that these men were “just about as far from land as it was possible to be anywhere on earth.”

The men knew that the nearest shores they could reach were the Marquesa Islands, 1,200 miles away. But they’d heard rumors that cannibals populated these islands.

Another possible destination was Hawaii, but, given the season, the ship’s captain was afraid they’d be hit by severe storms.

The last option was the longest and most difficult: to sail 1,500 miles south in hopes of reaching a certain band of winds to push them toward the coast of South America. But the sheer length of the journey would stretch their supplies of food and water.

To be eaten by cannibals, to be battered by storms, to starve to death before reaching land: The fear they chose to listen to would govern whether they lived or died.

Now, we might just as easily call their fears by a different name. What if instead of calling them fears, we called them stories? That’s really what fears are: a kind of unintentional storytelling we’re all born knowing how to do.

Like all stories, fears have characters: In our fears, we are the characters.

Fears have plots. You board the plane, the plane takes off, the engine fails.

Our fears also tend to contain imagery that’s as vivid as what you might find in a novel. Picture a cannibal’s teeth sinking into human skin, human flesh roasting over a fire.

Fears also have suspense. If I’ve done my job as a storyteller, you should be curious to know what happened to the men of the Essex. Our fears provoke a very similar form of anticipation. Fears, just like stories, make us wonder: What will happen next?

Our fears make us think about the future. And humans, by the way, are the only creatures capable of picturing the future in this way, of projecting ourselves forward in time.

A big part of writing fiction is learning to predict how one event in a story will affect everything that follows. Fear works in the same way. One thing always leads to another. When I was writing my first novel, The Age of Miracles, I spent months trying to imagine what would happen if the rotation of the earth suddenly slowed down. What would happen to our days or our crops? What would happen to our minds?

It was only later that I realized how similar these kinds of questions were to the ones I used to ask myself when I was frightened as a child: What will happen if an earthquake strikes tonight? The answer always took the form of a story.

So, if we think of our fears as stories, we should think of ourselves as the authors of those stories. Just as importantly, we need to also think of ourselves as the readers of these imaginative stories. And how we choose to read our fears can have a profound effect on our lives.

Some of us naturally read our fears more closely than others. In a study of successful entrepreneurs, Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen found that many of these people shared a habit they called “productive paranoia.” Instead of dismissing their fears, they read them closely, then they translated their fears into preparation and action. Thus, their businesses were ready if ever their worst fears came true. And sometimes, of course, our worst fears do come true.

That’s part of what is so extraordinary about fear: Once in while, our fears can predict the future. But how can we tell the difference between the fears worth listening to and all the others?

The end of the story of the whale ship Essex offers an illuminating, if tragic, example.

After much deliberation, the men finally made a decision. Terrified of cannibals, they decided to forgo the closest islands and embarked on the much longer route to South America.

After more than two months at sea, the men ran out of food. They were still quite far from land. When the last survivors were finally rescued by two passing ships, less than half of the men were alive. (And some of them had resorted to their own form of cannibalism.)

As Herman Melville wrote years later:

“All the sufferings of these miserable men of the Essex might, in all human probability, have been avoided, had they, immediately after leaving the wreck, steered straight for Tahiti… but,” as Melville put it, “they dreaded cannibals.”

The question is: Why did these men dread cannibals more than they feared starvation?

Looked at from this angle, theirs becomes a story about reading.

Vladmir Nabokov said that the best reader has a combination of two very different temperaments: the artistic and the scientific. A good reader has an artist’s passion, a willingness to get caught up in a story, but just as importantly, he said, the reader also needs the “coolness of judgment” of a scientist, which acts to “temper” or complicate the reader’s intuitive reactions to a story.

As we’ve seen, the men of the Essex had no trouble with the artistic part. They dreamed horrifying scenarios. The problem was that they listened to the wrong story. They responded only to the most vivid and lurid narrative, the one easiest for their imaginations to picture: cannibals.

But perhaps if they’d been able to read their fears like scientists, they would have listened instead to the likely story of starvation, and headed for the safety of Tahiti.

If we all tried to be better readers of our fears, we too would be less often swayed by the most salacious stories. Imagine spending less time worrying about plane crashes and serial killers, and more time concerned with the subtler and slower disasters we face: the silent buildup of plaque in our arteries, the gradual changes in our climate.

Just as the most nuanced stories in literature are often the richest and wisest, our subtlest fears might be the truest.

Read in the right way, our fears are an amazing gift of the imagination, a form of everyday clairvoyance, a way of glimpsing what might be the future when there’s still time to influence how that future will play out. Properly read, our fears can offer us something as precious as our favorite works of literature: wisdom, insight, and a version of that most elusive thing: the truth.

Illustrations by Matthew Brown, senior visual designer at frog

Karen Thompson Walker is the author of the best-selling novel The Age of Miracles. She spoke at TEDGlobal 2012.

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