Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cannonball Read #36: The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker

When I was learning how to drive, my Dad very nearly convinced me to just ride a bike for the rest of my life, because he was very intent on the Figure It Out For Yourself concept. This meant, amongst other things, trying to parallel park in downtown Worcester, failing, breaking out into panicky tears because I thought I was going to get hit by another car and die, and having my Dad sitting there going "just think about it, and you'll figure it out." This, somehow, was not that reassuring.

I did not die (surprise!) and now I can parallel park anywhere.

Gavin de Becker and my Dad would totally hang out and infuriate much of the world, but in the end, they would be wildly helpful and everyone would be able to appraise their fear and act on it effectively (and parallel park). De Becker's book, The Gift of Fear, banks on the idea that nature has given us everything we need to understand when we are in danger and how to act on it. I would like to admit here that I am fully in the "we are getting a very long way from nature and that is not great" camp, because it does make a difference in how I perceive the book. Humans didn't always live amongst cars and computers and phones, but we have always lived around other living things and hazards. Early on we evolved ways to cope with these hazards and other living creatures, evidenced by our, you know, being here. However, as we've progressed as a species, we've put more and more complications in our way, and begun to rely on reason more frequently.

All of us have done two things in our lives. First, we've gotten a bad, often scary feeling suddenly and for no immediately apparent reason. Second, we've talked ourselves out of a situation only to have it work out exactly how we KNEW it would. It's upon these two common events that de Becker bases his book and his life's work. He is in the business of threat assessment, taking him deep into the creepiest back rooms of the human psyche. In the book, he gives us a lot of advice on how to appraise situations and people, complete with helpful mnemonics and explanations, but I think the most essential part of what he's telling us is that we know this stuff already. There are several scenarios in the book that demonstrate this, and what makes them so powerful is their relatablity. He talks about those people who are a liiiiiiittle too helpful, the pushy ones who intrude on your personal space, the tiny outliers in typical behavior that set up the red flags. We have to relearn the messages that these signals are relaying to us, and being able to weigh those signals appropriately will save us worry about unnecessary junk and allow us to focus on true fear, which signals the need for action.

There is some really fascinating stuff in here. You can certainly fall victim to reading into his advice a bit further than you need to, but on the balance, I think de Becker has put together a really invaluable manual for appraising fear in a way that can relieve the aimless anxiety so many of us suffer from.

334 pages

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