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.

Dog by Jean-Michel Basquiat (source)

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.

Abandoned by Fyodor Bronnikov (source)

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.

The Lonely Ones by Edvard Munch (source)

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.

Practical Advice

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!

• • •

Top image credit: Margaret C. Cook (source)

Father, son, husband, friend and writer by day; asleep by night. Happily pondering the immortality of the crab wherever words are shared.

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