On what it means to live in fear
In my own community I keep hearing people say “We can’t live in fear forever.” And here’s the thing. vulnerable people have in fact been living in fear forever. Ask Uyghurs living in China, for example, if they live in fear of the Chinese authorities. Yes, they do. Will they do so for their whole life? Yes, they will. Because living in fear of the Chinese authorities is the way that they stay alive.
Ask a black person in the US if they live in fear of cops all the time, and I’m pretty sure the majority are going to say yes, they do. Ask an American high school kid if they live in fear of school shootings. Heck, ask a person with an anaphylactic allergy if they live in fear of peanuts. And again, that fear is what helps them stay safe.
Lots and lots of people live in fear forever for their whole lives. Thinking that you can’t live in fear forever or that you refuse to live in fear forever is the kind of thing you believe when your life has been so comfortable you’ve never had to look at the world straight on. Because if you’ve grown up in a world with plenty of things to fear, and that fear is a guide to the behavior that keeps you safe, then yes, you can live in fear forever and in fact you should.
At first I thought people were trying to make some sort of detailed grammatical point about living in fear versus living with fear. But when we talk about it, that doesn’t seem like the case. People seem to genuinely believe that experiencing any kind of fear is a failure, or means your life is joyless.
Fear is not failure, it’s just a signal. It’s a signal among a bunch of other signals. It is a factor that helps guide your behavior.
Fear of pregnancy and AIDS gets people to wear a condom when they’re hooking up with a random stranger. Fear of a car crash gets you to put on your seatbelt when you pull out of the driveway. Fear of school shootings gets jaded high school students to participate in tedious active shooter drills.
Fear can guide you towards safer behavior and I’m pretty sure that’s actually its evolutionary job. And I’m not sure why we’re pathologizing fear as a signal that we should disregard.
Let me be clear here. I hate that school kids have to fear shooters. I hate that Black people have to fear cops. I hate that we haven’t eliminated HIV yet. I hate every single thing about COVID. It is not right that the world is like this. But pretending there is nothing to fear doesn’t help.
So we can live in fear. We can live with fear. We should all be afraid of things. We should all have fear and we should all use that fear to help us make good choices. And vulnerable people have always known that.