To paraphrase Picasso . . . What is fear? What is not?
As for myself, fear has stalked me all my life, yet I still have only a rudimentary understanding of its basic nature. To be sure, everyone, including myself, is probably familiar with fear’s most elemental form –- the fight or flight instinct, if you will -– but the question becomes more difficult when, as in modern society, multiple layers of civilization and sophistication are heaped upon the basic impulse for survival.
For example, I spent 14 years in so-called “life or death” litigation battles, 7 years in “life or death” college and high school football games, yet I am fairly certain that my life -– i.e. my heartbeat, my brain function, my breathing –- was never truly in jeopardy at any time during the 21 years of my legal and football careers. Nonetheless, I still felt as though my very life would be forfeit during all those years if I lost a single fight.
As you might imagine, this led to an abundance of fear throughout my life, regardless of how many “fights” I had previously won. Indeed, it became almost a comical routine with my wife during my later years as an attorney. I’d come home, convinced I couldn’t possibly write the next paper, or win the next argument. My wife would tell me how ridiculous I sounded, given my track record, and I would dismiss her assurances almost immediately. You don’t win by having a better track record, after all. Each struggle is a new one, I thought, and you’re only as good as your last game.
So it’s hardly surprising that I’ve been interested in fear –- its nature, its origin, its impact, and, perhaps most importantly, its opposite –- for years. What is a bit more surprising is that I recently found a fellow student of the question -– and the compelling answer to that question -– in the idealized words of a man dead more than 2,500 years. The man? Deinekes, a Spartan soldier recently lionized in the movie 300 for rejecting the Persians’ boasts with the now-famous vow that the Spartans would be glad to fight in the shade of the Persians' innumerable arrows.
The answer? The opposite of fear is love.
I have a fellow noder to thank for this insight. He was the one, after all, who first introduced me to the book, Gates of Fire, by Steven Pressfield. A dramatic recounting of the heroic stand of the Spartans and their fellow Greeks at the battle of Thermopylae, the book has since been adopted by U.S. military instructors as a roadmap to the virtues of heroism and selfless courage. Some of the story is familiar to recent movie viewers –- the courageous stand of the 300 Spartans, their betrayal at the hands of a fellow Greek, their eventual slaughter beneath the arrows of the Persian hordes.
But unless you’ve read the book, you won’t know of Deinekes’ life-long study of fear -– and its opposite -– nor of his eleventh-hour revelation of the answer. To put this in perspective, you have to remember that Deinekes was a Spartan, born and bred for battle. From the age of six, he was indoctrinated in the Spartan military school known as the agoge. As a Spartan peer -– meaning a full Spartan citizen and warrior -– Deinekes had been through countless battles, seeing close friends die with each encounter.
Deinekes knew that the Spartans –- the real Spartans –- did not wear leather loincloths to battle, as the movie portrays, nor did they “psych themselves up” by shouting, yelling and cheering before the battle. No, the real Spartans were professionals, trained from childhood to recognize their fear, overcome it, and fight on in spite of it. They fought in a quiet, silent, phalanx that was murderously efficient and far more terrifying to their enemies.
Yet Deinekes refused to accept this answer at face value. If he was to fight fear, he reasoned, he wanted to know its origin, and its opposite. And by opposite, he meant something more than the mere “absence of fear.” After all, such a simplistic answer would amount to a logical truism, offering no insight whatsoever. No, Deinekes wanted something more, namely, what affirmative virtue, if any, was fear’s opposite member.
To reach his answer, Deinekes looked first to those warriors not of Sparta. These, he found, typically fought their fear by something the Spartans call katalepsis, namely, the hysterical, often berserk, explosion of rage used to overwhelm fear’s crippling impact. Spartans rejected this approach as weak, uncertain, and out of control. False bravado, if you will.
Next, Deinekes looked to the Spartan warriors themselves. To a man, he found, they were trained to use tricks of the mind, of the breathing, and of the body, to suppress and overcome their fear in advance of battle. For the most part, though, Deinekes found this to be the extent of the Spartans’ answer to fear.
Accordingly, Deinekes rejected both approaches as mere responses to fear, not its opposite. If katalepsis was a band-aid to cover fear’s wound, Spartan military discipline, he reasoned, was no more than a surgeon’s stitch. Neither was the true opposite, or cure, of fear.
Instead, Deinekes found his answer -– on the last night of the Spartans’ stand -– in the courage of the Spartan women. Women who don’t have the luxury of burying their feelings in a testosterone-laden flood before a battle. Women who must stand stoically while their sons -– to whom they have given both birth and nurture –- must march off to war, and possible death. Women who are constantly asked to give up their own personal love for the love of their nation. For Sparta.
I’ll admit, I didn’t understand this answer, either. At first.
I had, after all, made a career out of not loving anything, not even myself, and out of my accompanying willingness to give all I had to win the battle du jour. If my life was meaningless, I thought, I could do anything –- make any argument, take the worst cases, roll the dice with the worst odds –- and if I won, I won.
If I lost, who cared?
Then I found the love of my life, who, amazingly, agreed when I asked her to marry me. A few years later, we had a son, the most beautiful child I –- and others -– have ever seen. I now had to revisit my view on success and courage. And my own attitude towards fear. If I truly loved my wife and son, after all, how could I be willing to lay down my life indiscriminately for every little skirmish?
It was clear that I could no longer do that. Instead, I began to see that you can answer fear in only two effective ways. First, you can lay down your life –- and everything and everyone in it -– and charge into battle recklessly, not caring if you live or die. Or, you can own up to what you care about, recognize the fear you feel over losing what is precious to you, and fight anyway.
But while I had only started to understand how fear and love were related after my son was born, I didn’t truly see their relationship until today.
And my revelation didn’t come while reading a respected treatise or while listening to a venerable person speak. Instead, it came during an installment of a show called Mike and Mike in the Morning. For the uninitiated, Mike and Mike is a sports show running from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. on ESPN2 and ESPN Radio. The two DJ’s I’ll call Geeky Mike (a non-athlete, radio guy), and Football Mike (a non-radio, former NFL defensive tackle). They have great chemistry, and I enjoy just hearing them in the background -– kind of a soothing thing –- even though I would never listen to anything else ESPN-related.
I suppose that my years playing organized sports just kind of took the sports enthusiasm out of me.
Anyway, this morning Geeky Mike was taking about Tim Duncan, the reserved superstar of the San Antonio Spurs, the team that just won the NBA finals. He was trying to figure out if Tim Duncan really lacked confidence, or if he was just hiding it in some sort of sublimely understated way. Football Mike, who never won a championship in his completely average 12 years in the NFL, fell in with the second answer, proclaiming that any successful pro athlete simply had to think that he was the best athlete on the field for each game.
Well, I couldn’t have disagreed more, and my feelings were soon echoed by Mark Schlereth, a former offensive lineman for the Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins. According to Schlereth –- whose football chops, including three Super Bowl rings, put Football Mike’s to shame -– fear was a constant part of his career. But not because of anything personal to him, he said. Instead, he said his fear came out of the love he felt for his teammates. He didn’t want to let them down, and his fear –- and his consequent desire to push himself –- came from his refusal to back down in the face of his love for his comrades.
In other words, his love for his teammates was both the source of his fear -– his desire not to let them down, not to hurt them, or let them be hurt –- as well as its opposite, namely his desire to push himself on to greatness. For the sake of his team.
When I first asked my wife “What is the Opposite of Fear?” she responded “faith.” There may be those of you, particularly those with a strong religious view, who agree. I beg to differ. Faith is the opposite of doubt, not fear. You can have faith, but if there is nothing else in your life, you may still be beset by fear.
But if you love someone or something -– if you truly love it -– you will put your love, whether for team, for wife, or for son, ahead of your own selfish interests. It is only then that you can say that you have truly conquered fear.