Writen by Jimmie Burroughs
Over the years I’ve heard the famous quote made by Franklin D Roosevelt in his 1932 inaugural speech, “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. I’ve often wondered exactly what he meant, that is until I took the time to read it in the full context. Here are FDR’s words from his 1932 inaugural speech, excerpted from the original speech:
“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”.
Keep in mind that this was 1932 and the collapse of the stock market was 1929 so the country was in a time of great uncertainty. It was in the greatest depression of this country’s history before or since. He realized that fear itself was the greatest enemy and it alone could slow the progress into recovery.
While FDR had no solution to the problem at the time, he wanted to reassure the people that this is a great country, strong and determined and that things were going to be alright.
“The only thing to fear is fear itself” addresses the harm that fear can bring to progress. Fear can cause harmful actions; it can wreck the possibility of recovery from a bad experience. So I think FDR was telling the people not to let fear rob them of the possibilities of a new tomorrow with hope, success and prosperity.
Fear can stifle us, paralyze us and keep us from making wise decisions and taking appropriate action. Only when we are able to overcome fear can we move forward.
Understanding the meaning of fear
Let’s begin with a definition of fear: “to be afraid or apprehensive”…By the way, Fear is currently in the top 30% of look ups on Merriam-Webster.com. So apparently a lot of folks are dealing with it and trying to understand it.
The best way to understand fear is to understand why there is fear in the first place. First, there is nothing wrong in having fear; it becomes wrong for us when it is misused and misunderstood. Fear is a God given drive. It is one of a bundle of other drives that we have. Some of the most common and misused drives are: the fear drive, the anger drive, the sex drive and the hunger drive.
The fear drive was given to us as a protective device. If there was no fear drive at all, it would remove all precaution and create havoc in our lives. For example, when the fear drive is repressed because of alcohol or carelessness and we drive at a high rate of speed on dangerous and treacherous roads, we are endangering ourselves and others of death or great harm, but a healthy and active fear drive would be warning us through the fear of an accident that our action could result in death or serious injury.
On the other hand, if I have such a fear of riding in a car that I refuse to ever ride in one because of the danger it could impose, am I using the fear drive correctly? No! The proper use of the fear drive in that situation would be to observe the traffic laws and drive careful, therefore an accident is far less probable.
If we allow fear of things that could happen presently or in the near future dominate our thinking, we will paralyze ourselves from doing that which is in our best interest. For example, if we have such a great fear of flying that we refuse to fly under any conditions, we could paralyze ourselves to obtaining something that could be very needful and rewarding in our lives, like for instance, a very rewarding job that requires some travel by air or a trip to a beautiful and exotic place where we could not go otherwise.
There is a list of catastrophic things that could happen at any given moment but are improbable to happen at all, at least in our lifetime. For example, there is a huge volcano beneath the surface of Yellowstone National Park that could blow at any time. If it did, it would wipe out two thirds of the United States. Should a fear of that happening cause me to live only on the East Coast, far away as I can get from it? No, that is not dealing with the problem which is irrational fear but instead running from it.
Many things cause us to be fearful and worried, even things out of our control or things that are very improbable of ever happening. Matter of fact about 95% of the things we worry about never happen. You may be thinking, well how about the other 5%. Your fear or worry will not keep them from happening.
How then is the fear drive best served?
The answer to that is for what it was intended, as a protective device. I have a friend who was accosted on a parking lot. A man tried to drag her into a van but she put up such a fight that he gave up and sped away. Because of that experience she is now very cautious about being on a parking lot alone under certain conditions. Is she right? Yes she is because it is a rational fear based on experience; she is using the fear drive as intended, as a precaution about certain actions which could be dangerous.
It is said that the #1 fear is the fear of public speaking. I can attest to that since I have been a public speaker for many years now. I might add that I’ve never fully been able to lose that initial fear of speaking completely. Nevertheless I have not allowed it to keep me from doing that which I strongly desire to do. It actually has been a help because it makes me want to be fully prepared when I speak and I know it will go away within the first 60 seconds and then I am able to move right along in complete confidence of what I’m speaking about.
Discerning what is irrational fear and what is rational fear
I believe that the best rule of thumb in dealing with fear is to think about what you are fearful of and determine if you are being rational about it or not. Remember that it is irrational fear that is harmful and not rational fear. Determine which it is and then move along in your life, taking the appropriate action to overcome it.
Willingness to take the proper action to overcome irrational fear
Sometimes fears are phobia driven. If this is the case, they can be overcome but with a great deal of effort on a person’s part. If I have agoraphobia, fear of heights, then I need to immerse myself in situations that to prove to myself that I refuse to be a prisoner of that irrational fear. If I have a fear of flying, I need to fly. I realize that this may not always work for every person but it is worth the try.
The point I’m making is that taking the appropriate action to overcome fear is the only way of ever freeing ourselves of it. The other alternative is allowing it to control our lives.
Finally we need to follow FDRs advice to face our fears and not let them destroy our hopes of the future.
There are three things that keep people from overcoming fear: First they do not understand fear. Second, they are unable to discern the difference in rational and irrational fear. Third, they are unwilling to take the appropriate action to overcome their fear.
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