Here’s a TED talk worth watching: http://www.ted.com/talks/karen_thompson_walker_what_fear_can_teach_us.html. Fiction writer Karen Thompson Walker talks about what fear has in common with storytelling: characters, plots, imagery, and suspense. Many great creative minds work from their fears, she says, drawing material from the worst things they can imagine.
The more interesting part, however, is when she talks about the productive use of fear by those who are able to evaluate those fears with a scientific mind. The entrepreneur, for example, who uses her fears to prepare her business to survive the challenges she imagines. But we can’t prepare for every possible calamity, right? We have to evaluate which ones are more likely. To illustrate this, she tells the story of the accident of the Essex whale ship, which sunk 1200 miles from Tahiti and left its crew in three small boats with minimal supplies. They chose to try to make it more than 1500 miles to the coast of South America, despite knowing that they didn’t have enough food for the journey, because they were frightened by rumors they’d heard of cannibals in Tahiti. The result was that half of them died of starvation before they were picked up by passing ships.
Why did they make such a bad decision? Because the story of being eaten by cannibals was vivid and frightening, and it overwhelmed their minds despite the greater likelihood of starving. They lacked the cool judgment of a scientific mind, Thompson says, as do many of us when we focus on the possibility of dying in a plane crash instead of paying attention to the gradual buildup of plaque in our arteries.
I have this argument with my mother all the time. She watches something horrifying on CNN and then begins to make decisions based on avoidance of a very rare occurrence; and she tries to convince me to do the same. A timber rattler, a nearly extinct species in New Hampshire, recently got into someone’s garage and it made the news. So now we need to shut the garage door immediately, and patrol the garage carefully with a sharp shovel if it’s been open for a while. There was once a serial killer operating on I-91, killing random women, and it was speculated that he might have a fake police car, so now my mother thinks if you get pulled over for speeding you should drive to the police station and refuse to stop until you get there. Her mind is occupied by home invasions, tornadoes, earthquakes and other things that are statistically very unlikely to happen to us, and she always wants to know my flight routes so she can monitor the news for plane crashes. But she smokes cigarettes, utterly unconcerned with the likelihood of her long, slow, painful death by cancer. Nor is she concerned with the likelihood of a car accident as her eyesight worsens. And no amount of argument from me will sway her. We are not moved by the commonplace stories of death because they’re not vivid enough.
And of course, our fears are not only about things that will hurt us physically. Many times our minds tell the story of the bad opinion a colleague has of us, or the evil intentions of someone with whom we disagree. Instead asking ourselves, “Why would a reasonable, rational person like my teammate say what he just said to me?” we go along with our stories, spinning a tale of treachery and betrayal when what we should be doing is sitting down for a frank conversation with that colleague. Often if we took the time to check out our stories, we would find a very mundane misunderstanding to be at the root of the problem.
It’s not that I’m immune to the vividness of my imagination; on the contrary, I get nervous every time my plane encounters turbulence or a client appears to look cross-eyed at me. But I do make an effort to cultivate the scientific mind Thompson talks about. It takes a constant effort to keep our imaginations from steering us in the wrong direction, but it’s an effort well worth making.