The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself 1

Black and white photo of FDR

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his 1933 inaugural address, he spoke to a nation in the depths of the Great Depression. The value of the stock market had dropped by nearly 90% in four years, one million families had lost their farms, and the unemployment rate was 25%. Creating prosperity depended in part on restoring confidence in the country’s future.

When I read the history about the 1930s, I often dismissed Roosevelt’s famous quote as presidential-sounding fluff, a radio sound bite written by a speech writer for a pep talk to a desperate nation. Surely there were and are plenty of real things to be afraid of; losing the farm sounds plenty scary to me. Then there are the more day-to-day fears, like flying in an airplane or public speaking. I can add a few more from a blindness point of view, like crossing 8 lanes of traffic with a cane, or just going into an unfamiliar new place alone. How bogus is it to be afraid of fear itself?

Psychologists say that fear triggers a “fight or flight” response, in which our heart beat increases, our palms may sweat, our pupils dilate, and we prepare ourselves for defensive action. It’s what we feel when we encounter a clear and present danger, like when we’re walking down Main Street and a big dog growls at us and shows its teeth.

Some fears are healthy ones and keep us safe. It would be wise and appropriate to be at least a little bit concerned about growling dogs or crossing the busy street, especially if we hadn’t had training with a cane. I’m sure there’s an evolutionary angle in there somewhere. Cavemen who were afraid of saber toothed tigers lived long enough to have kids and teach them to be afraid of saber toothed tigers; survival of the fittest and all that.

Sometimes, however, the thing we’re afraid of isn’t really a clear and present danger. We remember the big dog on Main Street and we take another route. Our heart may even be racing, but there’s no dog. If we experience it as apprehension, dread, avoidance, aversion, discomfort, or procrastination, we may not even think of it as a fear. We may give in and let our fears push us around.

Some time back, when I was still a person with low vision, I went into a bank at a time when I anticipated waiting in line. The bank had just completed some remodeling and the lines to get up to the tellers were different than I remembered them. I took my place behind a gentleman in a dark green trench coat.

After waiting ten minutes and not moving, I leaned forward and asked, “Have you been waiting long?” He didn’t respond verbally, and I assumed that he’d rolled his eyes or made a visual nod or gesture. I didn’t want to get into a conversation about not being able to see him clearly and I let it go.

After another five minutes had passed, I was getting more frustrated because I was running short on time. You’d really think the bank would have enough tellers on duty to handle the lunch crowd. The guy in front of me was very passive, in my view. I extended the back of my hand toward his back, in part to get his attention again, and in part to confirm for myself that he hadn’t moved up without my knowledge.

He felt leafy.

He had big wide leaves to be exact, like on a potted rubber plant which was presumably part of the bank’s new public appearance. Feeling very much like Mr. Magoo, I bolted for the front door with as much dignity as I could salvage, horrified that I’d just stood in a bank for 15 minutes, talking to a potted plant!

Once you rack up a couple of these experiences, it can be challenging to muster up the courage to enter unfamiliar places alone. The fear of embarrassment may cause us to sell ourselves short and limit ourselves unnecessarily in ways that don’t help our cause.

One of the benefits of attending a rehabilitation program at the Carroll Center for the Blind was that it was a safe environment in which to explore new approaches, make mistakes, embarrass ourselves in the presence of supportive staff and students, and develop skills to deal with situations like these.

Roosevelt lost the use of his legs to polio in 1921 and became governor of New York seven years later. As a person with a disability, I imagine he knew a thing or two about feeling fear, but doing it anyway. Sometimes it’s the apprehension of the bogeyman in the closet that prevents us from reaching our fullest potential, rather than any real threat. Often it’s the fear of the fear, the anxiety that exists between our ears rather than on the street, that is the most disabling.

Most of the time, the worst case scenario doesn’t happen. We may not breeze through a new place flawlessly, but we accomplish our objective with only minimal discomfort. The next time we go there, we remember a few more details, like whether the doors swing in or out, or whether the counter is on the left or the right. We invent new strategies (like remembering to ask, “Excuse me, is this the end of the line?” and waiting for confirmation when we see a dark object in front of us!) Our repertoire of familiar places expands; we meet new people and are exposed to new things. If we put a few simple safeguards in place against disaster, don’t take ourselves too seriously, learn to laugh at our mistakes, practice, and talk to friends to keep up our confidence, the world becomes a little less threatening.

DeAnn Elliott

About DeAnn Elliott

My name is DeAnn Elliott and I am a graduate of the Carroll Center’s Independent Living Program, which I attended after losing my eyesight to Retinitis Pigmentosa. I live in the Boston area with my teenage daughter,our cat, and my guide dog, Emmy, a playful black lab.

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One thought on “The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself

  • rachel rosenbaum

    Another great blog DeAnn. I imagine many low vision readers will have had similar experiences as you described, talking to the potted plant, thinking you were in line.