Friday, February 18, 2011

Phobophobia - Another Conversation on Fear

My wife is afraid of snakes. My wife is afraid of spirits. My wife is afraid of a diverse number of creepy-crawlers and heebie-jeebies. She's not crazy, paranoid, or irrational. She's just developed an aversion to some of the more culturally nefarious elements of the world.

At first, when I'd come across one of my wife's phobia's, I'd scoff. In my mind, the targets of her reticence are harmless and fascinating. I find a snake in the yard, it's my goal to catch it. A spider scampers across the ceiling, I collect it and deposit the eight-legged critter harmlessly outside.

But as we've learned to live together and compromise, I've stopped and thought more about fears. How do fears develop? What dictates the subjects of our anxiety?

Spiders, Snakes, Raccoons, and Skunks

Ever since I can remember, I have allayed any fears of physical creatures with a scientific perspective. As a camp counselor at Camp Eastman in Nauvoo, Illinois, we had several critter alerts come up. Over the course of my ten years at camp, we had warnings about raccoons, skunks, snapping turtles, cottonmouth rattlesnakes, and even bobcats and mountain lions.

Generally, the counselors would be put on alert to watch out for the appearance of these critters, but no serious action would be taken. As high school and college men, we'd generally take matters into our own hands. On a lazy July afternoon, we'd be lounging in our bunks, evading the searing rays of a Midwestern sun. Suddenly a voice would cut through the humid atmosphere,


Like firemen to a blaze, we'd launch from our beds, grabbing whatever forked stick we could find, and search out the serpent-warning siren. Upon arrival we'd generally find one or two staff members dancing skittishly around a writhing, black line. If they were younger scouts the drama of the situation would get the better of them, and they'd be bound and determined that this was the most poisonous snake you'd ever seen.

“It's a black mamba!”

“No! It's a Cobra!”

“I think it's a baby anaconda!”

Generally it was a black-rat snake. The species is harmless to humans, but tended to be an inch in diameter and up to three feet long. This made them an exciting find for the staff, and we'd corral the beast for observation in the nature center. Whomever brandished a forked stick would aim for trapping the head of the snake, while the rest of us would use other branches to keep the animal from scurrying into the nearby trees. Clad in ankle-high hiking boots, there was little fear of a bite. But one summer, there were verifiable reports of a cottonmouth snake on camp property. It was a serious threat, as we were working with scouts who could weigh as little as 60 pounds. If they got bit by such a snake, their was a serious threat of death, so the administration developed an emergency snake bite plan. We had weekly drills to simulate such an emergency.

If we heard the words “Snake Bite” over the radio, we all had our marching orders. Some of us were to report to the site of the incident to keep other campers calm and administer medical attention. Others were in charge of pursuing the snake in an attempt to trap and identify the species. My duty was to meet the ambulance at the front gate and lead them to the camper.

After a couple of times practicing snake drills, we'd fashioned ourselves into a well-oiled machine. We hit our marks, radioed confirmation, and saved the mock-victims. But after a few weeks of silence on the snake front, we were itching for some action. Then one day, the nature director's voice crackled over the radio,

“We've got a snake sited down at Pete's Pond. I think she's the one. Anyone above 18 free for some snake wrangling, please report.”

In full sprint, I met two other college-aged staffers in the parade grounds outside the mess hall. We made the 300+ yard dash in seconds, despite the heat and hiking boots working against us. When we arrived, Mike had already gathered several snake catchers – 7 foot PVC pipes with a looped coil at the end for snaring a serpent. When we arrived, he stopped us ten feet from the water.

“She's down there by the reeds. Quiet down so you don't scare her off.”

We divided up and circled the area. The key was getting bodies on all sides of the animal, so as to block any escape. The problem was that the snake could easily duck under the water and disappear, or worse yet, charge one of us and get a bite off before we could stop her. But we were there to end this once and for all.

We jockeyed for position and waited for Mike's signal. When we were all prepared, we all moved in on the creature. We strategically pushed the snake toward the shore and, as she began moving toward the reeds and tall grass, Mike expertly snagged her by the neck. One of the staffers had a five gallon bucket standing by, and slammed down the lid as the last of the beasts slithering body passed the lip. She was not happy. But she was contained.

After the Department of Natural Resources reviewed the animal, they determined that it was in fact a cottonmouth snake, and a big one at that. The snake was over four feet long. 

She was also pregnant.

Apocalypse, Now?

With the relatively recent resurgence of zombie-hype, it seems that we've had an over abundance of end of world, cataclysmic event pop-culture in the last few years. Don't get me wrong, I love this genre. But I consume it with an eyebrow raised and with a large dose of skepticism.

Earlier today, I got a text from Brian, who said,

“do you know about the singularity? have you heard about this? it's the single thing that scares me the most”

Needless to say, I didn't have a clue what he was talking about, but the fact that it had Brian spooked warranted some deeper investigation.

From the Wikipedia entry that Brian sent me, I've gleaned that singularity is when miniscule robots are used to take heal humans, but eventually lead to humankind living forever, as bionic-man like entities.

To some, this might sound like an awesome prospect. If we can live forever, what is there to fear? But to Brian, this was terrifying. To quote:

“...This, to my protestant-raised brain, sounds an awful lot like the devil...think about that: everyone would be forced to choose between a life of faith, which equals death, or a life of certainty, which equals eternal life. Who would be brave enough to choose death? To allow for the possibility of nothingness, when the other side can "promise" everything? To me, that sounds so much like the bible it's not even funny. I hope I die before the singularity so that I don't have to choose sides...”

So basically, this is a theological, philosophical fear. So, like Annie's fear of snakes and spiders, I empathize with Brian’s fear. But I cannot say that I share his fear. It's not that it wouldn't be scary. The actual event of a nanobot takeover sounds downright terrifying. But I am not one to dwell on fear-mongering what-ifs. In the event of a cyber-biological invasion, I'll be one of the first ones hightailing it to a remote part of the countryside. But until then, what's the point of fretting?

The Fear I Fear

I don't want to sound like some butch, uber-machismo, douche bag. I have anxiety. I can be jumpy. But it's things internal, not external, that I fear.

I fear failure. I fear scorn. I fear disdain. It's the feeling that I have let someone down that really gets to me. So yes. I am afraid.
I am intrigued by the idea of fear. Why do we do it? What causes the emotion of fear? Please write in about your fears and phobias. Tell me where you think they came from and what you've done to cope with the things that frighten you.


  1. Photophobia is an Another Conversation on Fear. At first, when I'd come across one of my wife's phobia's, I'd scoff. In my mind, the targets of her reticence are harmless and fascinating.

  2. This was my initial reaction as well. But some might think that my fears are just as silly, so I've tried to become a little more empathetic to my better halves fears.

    Case in point, I got up three times last night to investigate suspicious noises in the house. There was nothing there, but the effort helped put her mind at ease.

  3. Not to be a nerd... (pushes up glasses>), but Singularity is not bound to one small sub section of science. Singularity is a hypothetical event occurring when technological progress becomes so rapid that it makes the future after the singularity qualitatively different and harder to predict.

    The singularity that you refer to is based in science fiction. Whereas technological singularities technically have already happened. It's simply the point where the unimaginable becomes reality. The internet, Space flight, cell phones. Even these though were in some way predicted.

    The difference between The Singularity and the others, is that all other advances have been limited by the intelligence and capacities of the human brain. They were predictable, to a degree. The next is heralded as the dawn of "intelligent machines". Artificial Intelligence as the media has coined it. A day when computers think on their own.

    Now the dawn of learning computers is long past. Your phone learns how you type and predicts your words, robots in factories are programed in a way that simulates learning. What computers have not yet been able to do, is teach each other and "learn" without human interaction. The singularity is a point were tech advances on its own without our hands to guide it.

    Honestly a much scary notion then nano-bot zombies.

    Now here's the best part. We're almost there.
    Check out this article:

    Added into that is the blow out success of Wilson. The computer that understands human syntax. Imagine a computer that doesn't only bring you your daily dose of Wikipedia but also reads it and learns from while you do the same.

    To simplify. We are fast approaching a day when even our vast ability to imagine the impossible cannot even begin to predict the future of life itself.

    Now there's something to keep you awake at night.

  4. Adam, I have one word for you.


    But thank you for clarifying the issue. It's still scary, but now it's a different type of fear.

    This is why Brian and I are preparing to go off the grid. This stuff happens, we're gone. Livin' off the land, distilling our own whiskey, and playin' music.

    You can join us, for $1000.