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Living With Fear

May 9, 2009 | by Yael Ziman

Ten years ago I asked a group of friends, "What is fear?" Their answers were strangely prophetic.

When I tell my friends that I will be moving to Jerusalem to study in a yeshiva, they ask, "Aren't you afraid?" The question has become evermore common since September 11th. Airplanes, mail, Islam, war, Cipro, crop dusters, white powder and heating vents -- the element of fear has attached itself to most conversations these days.

"I'm no more afraid of a terrorist or chemical weapons attack in Israel than I am facing an earthquake here in L. A.," I told my friend, Elizabeth, knowing that her greatest fear is a gigantic earthquake in California.

"Don't say that!" she begged me. "You'll make it happen!"

The fear in her eyes is new to my generation.

The fear in her eyes is new to my generation. What's especially new is the way it has hit everyone. It's rare to see an emotion span all races, genders, religions and economic classes in America. And, of course, the media loves it, so fear is regenerating itself with great momentum in pop-culture's giant feedback loop. How we process it, reinterpret it and embody it is the only way we can muster any sense of individuality.

My way of dealing with fear is to explore it thoroughly, shedding it of its mystique.
By being proactive, I can fool myself into believing I am more protected.


My attempt has caused me to become an NPR, BBC, Jerusalem Post, Economist and synagogue-attending addict. It has also caused me to back in time 10 years to the time I was a college undergraduate. Back then, I asked my group of friends what they thought fear meant and to tell me about their most frightening moments. I intended to use their answers as footage for my Introduction to Documentary Filmmaking class.

"What is fear?" I asked.

It was one of those questions that would throw anyone so off guard that she would have no other choice but to answer honestly. (At least, that's what my professor told me at the time.) Lately I've been curious to revisit what they said. Maybe they had a little insight into this latest fear that I was trying to demystify. So the other day I pulled out the dusty footage and checked in with what the group of us had to say. Fear had not yet engulfed us collectively, but individually we had all secretly been its victim.

"Fear is being trapped in a plane that's going to crash.

"Fear? It's a lack of control, definitely," one friend told me.

"People can be paralyzed by fear."
"Fear is always in the relation to the known, not to the unknown."
"It's losing the safety of what we know to be real."
"Fear of failure is the worst fear of all."
"Fear in a word? Helplessness."
"I'm afraid of snakes."
"I'm afraid of ending up alone."
"I'm afraid of not being happy."
"I'm afraid of heights."
"I'm afraid of flying."
"I'm afraid of dying."
"Fear is being trapped in a plane that's going to crash."
"I'm afraid of being in a fire."
"I'm afraid of falling."
"Living in New York is one big fear."
"Fear is the absence of being loved."
"Whatever the mind does to get rid of fear causes fear."
"Fear is the non-acceptance of what is."
"There's no such thing as fear. I'm not afraid of anything."
"I am afraid of the power of my own fear."
"I am afraid of God being disappointed in me."
"I an afraid of who I am."
"I am of discovering what I was really supposed to do here and knowing that I didn't do it..."

On September 11th, fear arrived, and we hurried to seek refuge in community.

My friends' answers proved to be oddly prophetic. Maybe somehow we all sensed the inevitability of the current wave of fear. It was as though we had all been secretly flipping through a catalogue of fears, readying ourselves for a collective emotion when the time came. On September 11th, fear arrived, and we hurried to seek refuge in community: A refusal to fly, a prescription of Cipro, stacks of magazines and newspapers piling up on the coffee table, the buzz of talk radio always on, a phone call to a long-lost friend living in New York, a martial arts class, the sale of our Boeing shares for the safety of a REIT, a smile for a stranger on the street, an extra "I love you" to a family member, hesitancy in the eye -- we're all showing our fear differently.

Indulge fear in your own individual way, but in the end don't forget that its price is far too expensive.

After a period of time, fear - as with any trend - could become imprisoning. Limiting our moments of surrender, silliness, laughter, pure joy and giving, fear is a reaction we all must get over sooner than later. If we cannot risk ourselves into stepping out from its shadow, then we will surely become less and less capable of feeling free again.


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