On a recent episode of the delightful BBC podcast GrownUpLand, the presenters talked about this question: What is the most commonly held fear? The answer, they recalled hearing, was a fear of public speaking, followed by the fear of death. Or the other way around, perhaps. My own guess, off the cuff, would have been a different one.
I did some research online and quickly found that satisfactory answers to this question are hard to come by, and that confusion and misunderstandings are everywhere.
Fear or Phobia?
First of all, the internet is rife with websites offering lists of all manner of phobias, preferably using their fancy technical Latin names. You’ve probably seen the word triskaidekaphobia pop up at some point—the fear of the “unlucky” number 13. Another example is glossophobia, the aforementioned dread of public speaking.
But here’s the thing. Not every fear is a phobia.
A phobia is a type of psychiatric disorder characterized by an unreasonable sense of anxiety caused by an otherwise innocuous trigger. Many people are a afraid of dogs, but far fewer can be diagnosed as cynophobic. Phobias can be profoundly debilitating, and may require treatment through exposure therapy, counselling or medication.
I am happy to leave the discussion of actual phobias to properly trained mental-healthcare professionals. But suffice it to say that for every population of phobic persons, there are many more people who have a perfectly common (and manageable) fear of the same thing.
So it’s reasonable to assume that the most common fear will not be a phobia.
Fear is Good
Next, we should also consider that fears are not only common; they’re positively good for us! If our ancestors has been incapable of experiencing fear, none of us would be here today.
A fear is a perfectly healthy response to a situation characterized by uncertainty, in which some element in our surroundings is experienced as threatening. If desire is our brain’s gas pedal, then fear is its brake pedal. (In this analogy, to return to them briefly, phobias might be pulling up the handbrake when it isn’t necessary.)
If we see fear as an ordinary and often useful feature of our mental makeup, it may not be unreasonable to assume that some fears are shared by all humans. If so, the “most common fear” could easily have a coverage of 100%.
The clear front runner: fear of death.
To Be or Not to Be
Let’s say that fears are useful because they serve as a mechanism to keep us out of harm’s way. And let’s say that the ultimate harm is loss of life. Do the psych-math and fear of death, the dread of not being, is clearly the mother of all anxieties.
Or is it?
I am willing to explore another possibility. One that may not be as profoundly or existentially fearsome as thanatophobia, but that could be much more relevant in our day-to-day experience.
What I’m thinking of is the fear of abandonment.
Don’t Leave Me This Way
Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about a lover’s fear that her sweetheart will leave her. Likewise, this is also not the fear every child experiences of losing their parents. It’s not even the fear that – goodness forbid! – all your Facebook contacts, each and every last one, will unfriend you.
Take a step back with me, if you will.
We humans are social creatures. We thrive when we are part of a community. In fact, we are part of many communities simultaneously. These bonds sustain us, guide us, inform our sense of identity, and provide us with the security we need.
At the same time, we also don’t want to disappear into these communities, becoming anonymous ants in a very big anthill. We like to think that we’re me, in addition to being us. And there’s the rub. It’s one of the fundamental and unresolvable paradoxes of the human mind: the tug-of-war between our need for communality and our desire for individuality.
If you become too much of an individual—too distinctive, too different—you may forfeit your membership of the community and end up alone, abandoned. It’s no wonder that exile and ostracism are among the worst punishments people can inflict on one another.
Conversely, if you become too much of a human commodity—too nameless, too indistinguishable—you may stop being recognized as an identifiable member of the community. Which, ironically, also leaves you ending up feeling alone.
Abandonment Is the Face of Death
Sartre famously wrote that l’enfer, c’est les autres: hell is other people. But along the paradoxical continuum we’ve just sketched, I’d rather suggest that “other people” are both hell and heaven.
We rely on others for our very survival, which is why abandonment is the face of death. And we rely on our individuality to legitimize our connection to those same others, which is why anonymity is, in its own way, also a form of abandonment.
Strung between community and individuality, the umbilical cord of identity is a tenuous one, and the terror of finding it severed may well be our most commonly shared fear.
So… what to do about all if this? It’s simple: hug someone today. Really. It’s the simplest way to reinforce the me in us, and the us in me.
Just do it. You’ll work magic.
And if they ask you why, just send them my way and let them read this little essay. Thanks!
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