Read CHAPTER XV - INSTINCTIVE FEAR of Where No Fear Was A Book About Fear, free online book, by Arthur Christopher Benson, on

The fears then from which men suffer, and even the greatest men not least, seem to be strangely complicated by the fact that nature does not seem to work as fast in the physical world as in the mental world.  The mosquitoes of South American swamps are all fitted with a perfect tool-box of implements for piercing the hides of warm-blooded animals and drawing blood, although warm-blooded animals have long ceased to exist in those localities.  But as the mosquito is one of the few creatures which can propagate its kind without ever partaking of food, the mosquito has therefore not died out; and though for many generations billions upon billions of mosquitoes have never had a chance of doing what they seem born to do, they have not discarded their apparatus.  If mosquitoes could reason and philosophise, the prospect of such a meal might remain as a far-off and inspiring ideal of life and conduct, a thing which heroes in the past had achieved, and which might be possible again if they remained true to their highest instincts.  So it is with humanity.  Many of our fears do not correspond to any real danger; they are part of a panoply which we inherit, and have to do with the instinct of self-preservation.  We are exposed to dangers still, dangers of infection for instance, but we have developed no instinctive fear which helps us to recognise the presence of infection.  We take rational precautions against it when we recognise it, but the vast prevalence and mortality of consumption a generation or two ago was due to the fact that men did not recognise consumption as infectious; and many fine lives - Keats and Emily Bronte, to name but two - were sacrificed to careless proximity as well as to devoted tendance; but here nature, with all her instinct of self-preservation, did not hang out any danger signal, or provide human beings with any instinctive fear to protect them.  Our instinctive fears, such as our fear of darkness and solitude, and our suspicion of strangers, seem to date from a time when such conditions were really dangerous, though they are so no longer.

At the same time the development of the imaginative faculty has brought with it a whole series of new terrors, through our power of anticipating and picturing possible calamities; while our increased sensitiveness as well as our more sentimental morality expose us to yet another range of fears.  Consider the dread which many of us feel at the prospect of a painful interview, our avoidance of an unpleasant scene, our terror of arousing anger.  The basis of all this is the primeval dread of personal violence.  We are afraid of arousing anger, not because we expect to be assailed by blows and wounds, but because our far-off ancestors expected anger to end in an actual assault.  We may know that we shall emerge from an unpleasant interview unscathed in fortune and in limb, but we anticipate it with a quite irrational terror, because we are still haunted by fears which date from a time when injury was the natural outcome of wrath.  It may be our duty, and we may recognise it to be our duty, to make a protest of an unpleasant kind, or to withstand the action of an irritable person; but though we know well enough that he has no power to injure us, the flashing eye, the distended nostril, the rising pallor, the uplifted voice have a disagreeable effect on our nerves, although we know well that no physical disaster will result from it.  Mrs. Browning, for instance, though she had high moral courage and tenacity of purpose, could not face an interview with her father, because an exhibition of his anger caused her to faint away on the spot.  One does not often experience this whiff of violent anger in middle life; but the other day I had occasion to speak to a colleague of mine on a Board of which I am a member, at the conclusion of a piece of business in which I had proposed and carried a certain policy.  I did not know that he disapproved of the policy in question, but I found on speaking to him that he was in a towering passion at my having opposed the policy which he preferred.  He grew pale with rage; the hair on his head seemed to bristle, his eyes flashed fire; he slammed down a bundle of papers in his hand on the table, he stamped with passion; and I confess that it was profoundly disturbing and disconcerting.  I felt for a moment that sickening sense of misgiving with which as a little boy one confronted an angry schoolmaster.  Though I knew that I had a perfect right to my opinion, though I recognised that my sensations were quite irrational, I felt myself confronted with something demoniacal and insane, and the basis of it was, I am sure, physical and not moral terror.  If I had been bullied or chastised as a child, I should be able to refer the discomfort I felt to old associations.  But I feel no doubt that my emotion was something far more primeval than that, and that the dumb and atrophied sense of self-preservation was at work.  The fear then that I felt was an instinctive thing, and was experienced in the inner nature and not in the rational mind; and the perplexity of the situation arises from the fact that such fear cannot be combated by rational considerations.  Though no harm whatever resulted or could result from such an interview, yet I am certain that the prospect of such an outbreak would make me in the future far more cautious in dealing with this particular man, more anxious to conciliate him, and probably more disposed to compromise a matter.

Such an incident makes one unpleasantly aware of the quality of one’s nature and temperament.  It shows one that though one may have a strong moral and intellectual sense of what is the right and sensible course to take, one may be sadly hampered in carrying it out, by this secret and hidden instinct of which one may be rationally ashamed, but which is characteristic of what seems to be the stronger and more vital part of one’s self.

The whole of civilisation is a combat between these two forces, a struggle between the rational and the instinctive parts of the mind.  The instinctive mind bids one follow profit, need, advantage, the pleasure of the moment; the rational part of the mind bids one abstain, resist, balance contingencies, act in accordance with a moral standard.  Many such abstentions become a mere matter of habit.  If one is hungry and thirsty, and meets a child carrying bread or milk, one has no impulse to seize the food and eat it.  One does not reflect upon the possible outcome of following the impulse of plunder; it simply does not enter one’s head so to act.  And there is of course a slow process going on in the world by which this moral restraint is becoming habitual and instinctive; but notably in the case of fear our instinct is a belated one, and results in many causeless and baseless anxieties which our reason in vain assures us are wholly false.

What then is our practical way of escape from the dominion of these shadows?  Not, I am sure, in any resolute attempt to combat them by rational weapons; the rational argument, the common-sense consolation, only touches the rational part of the mind; we have got to get behind and below that, we have got somehow to fight instinct by instinct, and quell the terror in its proper home.  By our finite nature we are compelled to attend to one thing at a time, and thus if we use rational argument, we are recognising the presence of the irrational fear; it is of little use then to array our advantages against our disadvantages, our blessings against our sufferings, as Michael Finsbury did with such small effect in The Wrong Box; our only chance is to turn tail altogether, and try to set some other dominant instinct at work; while we remember, we shall continue to suffer; our best chance lies in forgetting, and we can only do that by calling some other dominant emotion into play.

And here comes in the peculiarly paralysing effect of these baser emotions.  As Victor Hugo once said, in a fine apophthegm, “Despair yawns.”  Fear and anxiety bring with them a particular kind of physical fatigue which makes us listless and inert.  They lie on the spirit with a leaden dullness, which takes from us all possibility of energy and motion.  Who does not know the instinct, when one is crushed and tortured by depression, to escape into solitude and silence, and to let the waves and streams flow over one.  That is a universal instinct, and it is not wholly to be disregarded; it shows that to torture oneself into rational activity is of little use, or worse than useless.

When I was myself a sufferer from long nervous depression, and had to face a social gathering, I used out of very shame, and partly I think out of a sense of courtesy due to others, to galvanise myself into a sort of horrid merriment.  The dark tide flowed on beneath in its sore and aching channels.  It was common enough then for some sympathetic friend to say, “You seemed better to-night - you were quite yourself; that is what you want; if you would only make the effort and go out more into society, you would soon forget your troubles.”  There is something in it, because the sick mind must be persuaded if possible not to grave its dolorous course too indelibly in the temperament; but no one else could see the acute and intolerable reaction which used to follow such a strain, or how, the excitement over, the suffering resumed its sway over the exhausted self with an insupportable agony.  I am sure that in my long affliction I never suffered more than after occasions when I was betrayed by excitement into argument or lively talk, and the worst spasms of melancholy that I ever endured were the direct and immediate results of such efforts.

The counteracting force in fact must be an emotional and instinctive one, not a rational and deliberate one; and this must be our next endeavour, to see in what direction the counterpoise must lie.

In depression then, and when causeless fears assail us, we must try to put the mind in easier postures, to avoid excess and strain, to live more in company, to do something different.  Human beings are happiest in monotony and settled ways of life; but these also develop their own poisons, like sameness of diet, however wholesome it may be.  It is, I believe, an established fact that most people cannot eat a pigeon a day for fourteen days in succession; a pigeon is not unwholesome, but the digestion cannot stand iteration.  There is an old and homely story of a man who went to a great doctor suffering from dyspepsia.  The doctor asked him what he ate, and he said that he always lunched off bread and cheese.  “Try a mutton chop,” said the doctor.  He did so with excellent results.  A year later he was ill again and went to the same doctor, who put him through the same catechism.  “What do you have for luncheon?” said the doctor.  “A chop,” said the patient, conscious of virtuous obedience.  “Try bread and cheese,” said the doctor.  “Why,” said the patient, “that was the very thing you told me to avoid.”  “Yes,” said the doctor, “and I tell you to avoid a chop now.  You, are suffering not from diet, but from monotony of diet - and you want a change.”

The principle holds good of ordinary life; it is humiliating to confess it, but these depressions and despondencies which beset us are often best met by very ordinary physical remedies.  It is not uncommon for people who suffer from them to examine their consciences, rake up forgotten transgressions, and feel themselves to be under the anger of God.  I do not mean that such scrutiny of life is wholly undesirable; depression, though it exaggerates our sinfulness, has a wonderful way of laying its finger on what is amiss, but we must not wilfully continue in sadness; and sadness is often a combination of an old instinct with the staleness which comes of civilised life; and a return to nature, as it is called, is often a cure, because civilisation has this disadvantage, that it often takes from us the necessity of doing many of the things which it is normal to man by inheritance to do - fighting, hunting, preparing food, working with the hands.  We combat these old instincts artificially by games and exercises.  It is humiliating again to think that golf is an artificial substitute for man’s need to hunt and plough, but it is undoubtedly true; and thus to break with the monotony of civilisation, and to delude the mind into believing that it is occupied with primal needs is often a great refreshment.  Anyone who fishes and shoots knows that the joy of securing a fish or a partridge is entirely out of proportion to any advantages resulting.  A lawyer could make money enough in a single week to buy the whole contents of a fishmonger’s shop, but this does not give him half the satisfaction which comes from fishing day after day for a whole week, and securing perhaps three salmon.  The fact is that the old savage mind, which lies behind the rational and educated mind, is having its fling; it believes itself to be staving off starvation by its ingenuity and skill, and it unbends like a loosened bow.

We may be enjoying our work, and we may even take glad refuge in it to stave off depression, but we are then often adding fuel to the fire, and tiring the very faculty of resistance, which hardly knows that it needs resting.

The smallest change of scene, of company, of work may effect a miraculous improvement when we are feeling low-spirited and listless.  It is not idleness as a rule that we want, but the use of other faculties and powers and muscles.

And thus though our anxieties may be a real factor in our success, and may give us the touch of prudence and vigilance we want, it does not do to allow ourselves to drift into vague fears and dull depressions, and we must fight them in a practical way.  We must remember the case of Naaman, who was vexed at being told to go and dip himself in a mud-stained stream running violently in rocky places, when he might have washed in Abana and Pharpar, the statelier, purer, fuller streams of his native land.  It is just the little homely torrent that we need, and part of our cares come from being too dignified about them.  It is pleasanter to think oneself the battle-ground for high and tragical forces of a spiritual kind, than to realise that some little homely bit of common machinery is out of gear.  But we must resist the temptation to feel that our fears have a dark and great significance.  We must simply treat them as little sicknesses and ailments of the soul.

I therefore believe that fears are like those little fugitive gliding things that seem to dart across the field of the eye when it is weak and ailing, vague clusters and tangles and spidery webs, that float and fly, and can never be fixed and truly seen; and that they are best treated as we learn to treat common ailments, by not concerning ourselves very much about them, by enduring and evading them and distracting the mind, and not by facing them, because they will not be faced; nor can they be dispelled by reason, because they are not in the plane of reason at all, but phantoms gathered by the sick imagination, distorted out of their proper shape, evil nightmares, the horror of which is gone with the dawn.  They are the shadows of our childishness, and they show that we have a long journey before us; and they gain their strength from the fact that we gather them together out of the future like the bundle of sticks in the fable, when we shall have the strength to snap them singly as they come.

The real way to fight them is to get together a treasure of interests and hopes and beautiful visions and emotions, and above all to have some definite work which lies apart from our daily work, to which we can turn gladly in empty hours; because fears are born of inaction and idleness, and melt insensibly away in the warmth of labour and duty.

Nothing can really hurt us except our own despair.  But the problem which is difficult is how to practise a real fulness of life, and yet to keep a certain detachment, how to realise that what we do is small and petty enough, but that the greatness lies in our energy and briskness of action; we should try to be interested in life as we are interested in a game, not believing too much in the importance of it, but yet intensely concerned at the moment in playing it as well and skilfully as possible.  The happiest people of all are those who can shift their interest rapidly from point to point, and throw themselves into the act of the moment, whatever it may be.  Of course this is largely at first a matter of temperament, but temperament is not unalterable; and self-discipline working along the lines of habit has a great attractiveness, the moment we feel that life is beginning to shape itself upon real lines.