The problem with fear is its dichotomous nature: It is at once essential to our survival and a welcome companion to the wise, while at the same time a powerful drive capable of spurring bad actions, crippling forward movement, and breeding suspicion and hopelessness in the timid. (iStock Photo)
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What was that noise?
The muffled banging/thumping/scraping noise jumped out of the 0500 darkness from a cluster of cars parked in my neighbors driveways about 90 feet away from where I stood, still blurred and bleary-eyed and waiting for my morning coffee to kick in (and for my dog to quit sniffing the grass and get down to his morning business).
And here I stood in shorts and a T-shirt, unarmed but for an aged and half-blind Pug (and he an avowed and life-long pacifist to boot, this Pug), no gun, no cuffs, no phone, no vest, and no radio… with burglars hard at work relieving my neighbors cars of God-knows-what just steps away.
What to do??
Hope I’m wrong, that it was just a random noise and not a band of roving criminals breaking into cars, and go about my business? No, I could never do that; it’d eat at me and, besides, I despise burglars! Rush the dog back inside, call 9-1-1 for help, arm myself, and return to the fight to save the day? Wrap Rocky’s leash around a tree and just wade in armed with nothing but righteous indignation and my own two fists? Or should I simply make a lot of noise, let them know I’m here and on to their rotten game, watch where they run, and be a good witness?
I played through the options in my head, quickly weighing pros and cons, when I heard the BANG again, louder this time. “C’mon, Mike… gotta decide now. It’s time to do something!” And then… out shuffled Ed from his garage (he and his wife both retired from the sheriff’s department), puffing a cigarette and dragging something behind him that he dropped with a BANG on his driveway before shuffling back inside and noisily rummaging around some more.
What’s he doing up at this hour? Oh, who cares…
And so I led my old buddy back into the house, willed my adrenaline-jangled nerves to calm down, and gathered my gear for another day of work acutely aware of the emotion I’d just worked through—fear.
Last month we took a look at courage, and it just seemed natural to follow with a column on fear, especially after having such an acute and unexpected encounter with it last week. The existence of fear is, after all, a necessary component of courage. Courage without the requisite fear is mere fearlessness at best, and foolishness at worst.
The Dichotomy of Fear
The problem with fear is its dichotomous nature: It is at once essential to our survival and a welcome companion to the wise, while at the same time a powerful drive capable of spurring bad actions, crippling forward movement, and breeding suspicion and hopelessness in the timid. It protects life, or hinders living, depending on your outlook and constitution. This dichotomy, if not understood and managed, can cripple a person socially and professionally. As cops, keeping a well-grounded perspective separating the healthy fear that keeps us alive from the unhealthy that breeds paranoia is critical.
"Let the fear of danger be a spur to prevent it; he that fears not, gives advantage to the danger." --Frances Quarles
Many of you have read or are aware of Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear. In it, de Becker strives to help people understand and tap into their natural fear, see it as the gift it is that warns us of impending danger (in his predominant theme, of violence or assault) and see the indicators that should prompt a fear response to prevent the dangers and those who would do us harm. It has been a popular book, and especially among cops, for good reason.
We live our on-duty lives looking for signs of impending assault: the clenched fists, elevated voice tones, the body language that tells us to get set to rock ‘n’ roll. We grasp tightly to our natural fear responses because they’re the very things we rely on to stay alive. As police officers, we also know things the average citizen doesn’t about human nature, the prevalence of predators and how quickly danger strikes. We take our off-duty safety a lot more seriously as a result.
Complacency kills cops. Complacency is the literal dulling of those natural and necessary fear responses. Complacency comes from all the fights won, all the scary situations that turned out well, all the cooperative bad guys who decided to go along to get along on so many days that, when things didn’t go so well, the good guy got hurt, or worse.
Fear is that feeling telling you to fight against the complacency because, as Quarles points out, lacking fear of danger gives advantage to the danger; it sets us up for failure, for harm and creates an untenable vulnerability.
"Fear is a question: What are you afraid of, and why? Just as the seed of health is in illness, because illness contains information, your fears are a treasure house of self-knowledge if you explore them." --Marilyn Ferguson
"Fear is the biggest motivator." --Bill Dixon
For those with greater insight, or the willingness to self-examine, fear is valuable tool. What we fear tells us a lot about ourselves, who we are, how we’ve become who we are, and about our strengths and weaknesses.
I am bit of a hypochondriac. Not nearly as bad as some, but I can dredge up alarm over otherwise routine aches and pains most other guys my age take for granted. Over the years I have suffered from aneurysms, brain tumors, bone cancer, heart ailments too many to count, melanoma, carcinoma, diabetes, early onset Alzheimer’s, and elbow cancer (ask Althea about that one) and bleeding ulcers. Of course, I’m perfectly healthy, according to my doctor, and a history of false alarms has settled me down quite a bit although I know someday I’ll be right about something! And even reassurances of my health make me a little nervous. (What if I gloss over something because I’ve been an alarmist so many times, and it turns out I’m really sick?). Doing CPR on a guy two months older than me who collapsed and died for no apparent reason has a sobering effect.
The fact is, I’m a product of families with histories of early heart disease, diabetes, cancer and vision loss due to macular degeneration, and depression. For the most part, all these things are pretty much absent in my generation despite wreaking havoc among our parents, but the fear of early death and hypersensitivity to its omens is understandable.
The good thing, for my cousins and myself, is that as we move into middle age we’ve taken significant steps to avoid the problems of our elders. We eat better, stay in better shape, think preventatively and refuse to get trapped by the “doomsday thinking” that just assumes we’re going to die young. Fear has been a motivator.
Self-examination, starting with whatever internal brakes hold you back from maximum potential—and often the root cause of unrealized potential, no matter what form it takes, is fear—can lead to self-improvement. In that manner, fear is diagnostic.
"No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear." --Edmund Burke
"Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world." --Ralph Waldo Emerson
And here is where fear’s dichotomy kicks in. When does healthy fear, met with well-informed, prudent courage—or sometimes well-informed, prudent flight—cross the line into the irrational or overwrought? Where does vigilance give way to paranoia? At what point does reasonable suspicion yield to a bunker mentality? These are questions for cop and citizen alike, and much of the last decade has seen them become part of our discussion nationally and locally.
Recently, I’ve been working the front desk for roughly the first half of most shifts, handling desk reports, initiating walk-in investigations, and fielding phone calls about all sorts of complaints and concerns. What always strikes me about this duty is how often it is fear—legitimate or unreasonable—that motivates the calls and complaints we get, and how these fears drive behavior and beliefs to often irrational, cripplingly dysfunctional levels.
Managing fear is one of life’s most important skills, and one many never master. How are you doing with it? Are your fears motivational, instructive and managed? Or do they ever get out of control or harm you personally or professionally? Cops aren’t immune to the negative effects of fear. Some might even argue we become more susceptible to fear because we have a front-row seat to the reality most never really see. Whether that is true or not, I believe, depends on the individual. Regularly taking stock of our fears and how we respond to them is one of the most important things we can do.