Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Hug the monster: fear and paralysis

"Sometimes the right metaphor can save your life." So claims Bill Blakemore in an article on (American) ABC news:
"'Hug the monster' is a metaphor taught by U.S. Air Force trainers to those headed into harm’s way. The monster is your fear in a sudden crisis — as when you find yourself trapped in a downed plane or a burning house. If you freeze or panic — if you go into merely reactive “brainlock” — you’re lost. But if your mind has been prepared in advance to recognize the psychological grip of fear, focus on it, and then transform its intense energy into action — sometimes even by changing it into anger — and by also engaging the thinking part of your brain to work the problem, your chances of survival go way up."*
These ideas resonate with part of my thesis argument. Fear is natural, unescapable and yet can be deadly if handled wrongly. Just as those faced by a life-threatening situation will fare much better if they can harness their fear in productive ways, so all of us, facing a civilisation-threatening situation, will fare much better if we can properly locate and use the fears that naturally arise when we hear of rising seas, falling water tables, disintegrating biodiversity and squandered resources. There is, however, an important difference between finding yourself trapped in a burning building and finding yourself trapped in a warming planet: timescale. The fear that needs to be hugged in the former case is based on adrenaline, and the threat is immediate, tangible, personal and avertable. In the latter, the threat is slow, largely invisible in the rich world (except to statisticians), impersonal and my efforts are but a drop in the ocean. And so the fear associated with ecological crises is a deeper, settled anxiety rather than a sweaty-palmed panic. Can we hug this monster in the same way that survivors learn to hug the adrenaline-fuelled variety?
*The same author also has an excellent follow up piece reflecting on the memorable quote from Thomas Hobbes, "Hell is the truth seen too late".