Perhaps the most daunting challenge to anyone who hopes to live a life well lived is that it involves incessant balancing of essentially irreconcilable contradictions. One strives to be brave, empathetic, loving, emotionally present, and yet sufficiently assertive, all at the same time. Unfortunately, the intuitive answer that one should exhibit these characteristics in moderation – neither too much nor too little – will often not do. Consider empathy. It is surely possible to be so empathetic that one takes on too many burdens that should be borne by others as many a depressed psychiatrist would attest. It is likewise ordinary to meet people who suffer from a striking lack of ability to put themselves in the shoes of others. And yet, there is hardly the right amount of empathy that would approach some well-balanced ideal. Instead, those individuals who I would consider most successful at exercising empathy are those who are remarkably empathetic in certain situations and remarkably reserved in others. They do not seem to have been born with the right “dose” of empathy, rather, they seem exceptionally skillful at regulating it. Whatever their natural inclination and urge may be, they succeed at boosting or dampening their levels of empathy, depending on the situation they find themselves in.
Let me give you an example from my own life with which I have become intimately familiar – fear. Plain old fear. We have all experienced our share of fear, whether justified or unreasonably amplified. Those who claim otherwise either lie or suffer from a mental condition which likely requires expert attention. The moments I have found particularly perplexing are those when I had to deal with fear that I knew, at an intuitive level, was unreasonable. For instance, during the many research trips I made to Africa, I often felt uneasy in situations which were, with the benefit of hindsight, relatively safe. I felt fear when walking on the streets of big African cities, angst which stemmed merely from being in an unfamiliar place about which I probably carried thoughts far removed from reality. And yet, I felt objectively unreasonable fear.
Aware that this is not how I want to feel during my research trips and perhaps initially also embarrassed by my feelings, I wondered what to do about them. I for a while longer than it should have been thought that the discomfort caused by occasional fear was a kind of disfunction. But as I learned about the experiences of others, it dawned upon me that the key to courage, whether big or small, is not the absence of fear. It is the ability to overcome it and act in spite of it. The usefulness of fear is of course that it is an emotion that does not require rational evaluation in order to trigger action. In dangerous situations, an initial boost of adrenalin can save our lives but a few seconds later, fear often becomes redundant, if not crippling. Hence the goal cannot be to live without fear but instead, to manage it and learn how to live with it. A true balancing act.
The problem is that far too often we assume that behind an impressive life story and a superb curriculum vitae, there is a supernatural lack of fear, one that would in all honesty amount to a psychotic condition. The truth is that far more often, courage is rooted in welcoming acceptance of fear that starts with the willingness to be brutally honest with oneself and continues with the refusal to allow fear to determine what we do. The essence of respectable human existence, perhaps, is not to avoid the feelings of fear. It is to occasionally escape them, to put up a struggle before we succumb again. And that should be enough. Because by resisting for just a moment, we can prove to ourselves that we are not at fear’s mercy.