“FEARLESS!” bumper stickers, snakes and the scary real world

At a Halloween party with friends in October of 2019.

It’s that time of the year when Americans put out their coffins, skeletons and cobwebs to gleefully transform normal, quiet neighborhoods into zombie-infested mean streets. Many people relish seeing how much they can scare others during Halloween. I am not among them. I’ve never felt the urge to seek out scary stuff in an attempt to help me feel more alive. Heck, I not only avoid gore in movies but also quickly scroll past photos of people’s bloody wounds on social media. I simply don’t need to know what all can go horribly, irrevocably wrong with a human body. But some people gobble up gore like it’s a recommended food group. Those are probably some of the people who sport those ”FEARLESS!” bumper stickers.

Why is fear so … scary?

I once thought those bumper stickers were a cool statement of utter confidence in the owner’s ability to kick fate’s butt, no matter what. But really?  Whether human being or creepy critter, living things are wired with a generally healthy sense of fear because it helps keep a species alive. While fear is useful for our overall survival, it doesn’t explain why we’re afraid of something in particular. It also doesn’t explain why we remain scared of something even when the fear is no longer makes sense.

What ssssscares us?

Take snakes, for example. Many, many people loathe snakes even if they’ve never encountered one. I remember having a snake slither its way into my childhood home not once but twice. Just the thought of a poisonous reptile loose somewhere close to the house, much less inside where we lived, was enough to make my entire family’s skin crawl.

I don’t remember much about the first snake’s exorcism, but it involved large amounts of my parents’ chosen snake-expelling substance of sulfur, which made the house smell like rotten armpits for way too long.

As for the second one, Daddy felt the most expeditious way to deal with it was to grab a loaded shotgun and aptly end the creature’s indoor adventure by shooting it – inside my parents’ bedroom – putting a hole in the top and back my mom’s dresser in the process. Momma didn’t seem too upset about that top hole, later covering it up with a doily. We all felt the lingering odor of gunpowder highly preferable to a potential poisonous and hugely unwelcome bedmate. It was definitely better than the sulfur.

What shouldn’t scare us?

Despite these and other slithery near encounters, I’ve never been bitten or directly threatened by a snake. And yet I’ve had to force myself to walk through reptile exhibits at zoos. Did I learn this fear because of growing up in a wooded area where rattlesnakes and water moccasins were plentiful? Was it because of my parents’ repeated dire warnings about snakes (which really weren’t necessary given the in-home reptile visits)? Was it evolutionary learning because snake bites meant potential death for early settlers to the South Alabama area?

While snake bites might have been a real threat in childhood, my lifestyle today by no means exposes me to the potential of venom-filled wounds. The fear, however, has persisted. What I’ve realized is there are things we’re afraid of that make sense – real threats – and those that don’t – perceived or unlikely threats. Just because a threat may have been real at one time doesn’t mean it’s something we have to keep fearing. But when we still believe what scares us is a real and enduring threat, our fearful reaction rears its ugly, unwelcome head.

What fears do we choose?

My father may or may not have been afraid of that snake, but he did correctly deduce it was a threat to his family and took immediate steps to solve that equation, to the snake’s demise. The wisdom of using the loaded rifle he kept above his dresser to do so … well, that’s arguable.

My grandmother, who lived nearby, once found a snake in her house. She put out the obligatory sulfur and reluctantly agreed to come stay with her daughter, son-in-law, and their four little girls until the snake was gone. Grannie stayed only a couple of days. I suspect it wasn’t because the snake was gone but because she felt that dismissing her fear of a potential snake in the house was preferable to dealing with four very real, rambunctious and loud girls aged 10 and less.

Fear recalculated

Grannie surely had fears, but she would’ve never told anyone about them. She simply looked at the situation as it was and made a choice. Heck, she’d probably laugh at those “Fearless” bumper stickers because she knew really big fat scary fear, stared it down with her steel magnolia eyes, and did whatever she wanted anyway.

Grannie lived a life not about being “FEARLESS!” but about living on her own terms – to “fear LESS.” I choose to follow her purpose-driven “fear less” example … and that means it’s OK to never watch scary movies, comment on anyone’s gory wound posts on social media, or embrace anything to do with a zombie apocalypse. Unless there was one. Then I’d be staring down those zombies with y’all, scared out of my wits, but screaming “FEAR THIS!!” to the undead because, well, why not?

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