Status Update (or, why is there no movement here?)

This blog will remain accessible at this location until some time in January. Earlier reports of its departure were premature.

This has been a lesson in humility. Basically, I made the mistake of trying to be proactive, demonstrate my independence, and prove my capacity for self reliance by doing something myself. What happened? Just another confirmation of what I actually already know all too well: That this only works if I have the knowledge, skills, and/or talent to make it work. Otherwise, I need HELP!

While my new author webpage now has a functioning way for people to sign up to receive updates, I have yet to learn how to send those updates. I’m going to have to work on that – with assistance – and do some testing to make sure it all works smoothly before this bird is going to be ready to fly. Given the lateness of the season, there just realistically isn’t going to be time to accomplish that before the end of the year.

So, I lied. But I didn’t mean to.

Happy Winter-Solstice-coincident observances to all, and stay tuned.

Fear in Fiction

Fear is often treated in fiction as if it were just a weakness — a deficiency of the thing we call “courage” – and something that should be overcome at all costs. This overcoming of fear is an extremely frequent theme in all forms of storytelling, and the approach to overcoming fear that is depicted is almost always one in which the character confronts his or her fear, beats it, and is never troubled by it again. This is a convenient and compelling scenario which allows a rapid, dramatic solution to a problem. It has the further attraction that the hero or heroine must use courage to arrive at the solution.

This cliché is so ubiquitous that most people don’t realize it is a cliché. They think it’s an accurate representation of how fear works and how fear should be dealt with. Psychologists have a name for this confrontational approach: It’s called “flooding,” and they don’t recommend it. They don’t, for the simple reason that it’s all too possible for the fear to “win” the confrontation, making the person’s problem worse, not better. The recommended approach for overcoming inappropriate fears is called “desensitization” and consists of approaching the fear in a series of small incremental steps that can take quite a long time to achieve their goal. It’s pretty easy to see why that approach isn’t popular with fiction writers. You do see it used occasionally in fiction, usually when the fearful person is depicted as inherently weak, such as a small child or a traumatized person. Heroes don’t do it this way, however. To be a fictional hero one must take the plunge.

Everything I know about fear indicates that the view of it as a weakness or a deficiency of courage is fundamentally inaccurate. Fear is functional. It’s a protective mechanism that evolved to help keep us safe and frequently serves us well. Fear undoubtedly saves countless lives every day as it motivates people to avoid dangerous situations and behaviors. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, reacting naturally to that motivation was probably beneficial most of the time, or at worst, harmless. Our modern world differs vastly from the one we evolved to inhabit, however, and some of our fears have become inappropriate as a result. There are also a number of recognized disorders involving the fear mechanism, ranging from free-floating anxiety to simple phobias, to panic attacks – some of which may be exacerbated by the complex demands of our modern society.

Fear is known to have a biological mechanism involving specific brain regions and neurotransmitters. The same cannot be said for courage. It’s difficult, in fact, to say what “courage” actually is. Much of what passes for courage is really fearlessness. Real life “heroes” who rescue other people from danger frequently report that they didn’t think, but “just did it.” In that moment of impulse it’s doubtful they were experiencing fear. Daredevils and thrill-seekers routinely take on dangerous feats because it gives them a “rush,” which I can only assume is not the same thing as what I call fear.

According to my best understanding, the fear-overcoming type of courage consists of the ability, in a specific situation, to marshal mental motivators of sufficient number and potency to outweigh the power of the fear response that the brain is experiencing. And there is simply no guarantee that any particular person will be able to do that in any given situation. I conclude that we are far too free with the “coward” label, especially when anxiety disorders are estimated to affect 20% of the population.

We’ve probably all heard the adage, “to be brave one must first be afraid.” Yet fear has such a negative perception in our culture that we continue to admire fearlessness and look down on those who show fear. Further, the adage implicitly assumes that being “brave” is the desirable response. Writers of fiction (and nonfiction) frequently contribute to this bias. They love to make antagonistic characters ultimately turn out to be “cowards,” even as the protagonist turns out to be “brave.” It’s often assumed that we will judge characters negatively or positively based on how they respond to danger – and that we are right to do so.

If we truly wish to help people who suffer from inappropriate fears, an excellent place to start would be to resist this cultural bias that automatically dumps on fear and on the people who experience it or are overcome by it. We can counter the inaccurate assumption that one must always face fear head-on and the cavalier notion that a “courageous” person can always will it away. Fiction writers can help by seeking to portray fear more realistically. Readers can take writers to task for failing to do so.

I invite your comments.

Human diversity: We’re not all the same under the skin

We are all born inside our heads and we live our entire lives there. What we understand about others is largely deduced from watching the shadows on the wall. We can potentially gain insight by talking with other people – provided we are able to open our minds to the possibility that they may be both similar to us and different from us.

Given our congenital myopia, it’s hardly surprising if our first assumption is that another person’s mind must work the same way ours does. Not that humans have always thought so, of course. A large part of human history has been dominated by the struggle to see past our superficial differences – to understand that just because someone has a different skin color, or hair texture, or eye shape, doesn’t mean that the mind inside is radically different from ours. As a species we’re still trying to get past the stage of killing, enslaving, vilifying – or just dismissing – those who don’t look like us on the outside.

Maybe people currently find it easier to “embrace diversity” if they see the differences between people as trivial and superficial. We’re all alike at the core, right? We all have the same needs and want the same things, don’t we? The trouble is that this kind of thinking dovetails all too easily with our inability to see inside of other people’s heads and can lead to overlooking or dismissing some very real – and very important – differences in how people’s minds work.

People have different mental abilities – intelligence, if you will – but also different mental talents, perceptiveness, and perceptions. Some have talent for language, some for math. Some people are good at understanding themselves, others are self-blind. We have different personalities: optimist versus pessimist, introvert versus extrovert. The basic emotions are expressed at different levels in different people. Some people struggle constantly with fear, others are all but fearless. This one is almost impossible to rile, that one needs a course in anger management.

Regardless of whether these differences are genetically determined or acquired through life experiences (I believe it’is some of both), they are real. The up-shot is that we do not all face the same challenges even though we may be placed in the same situations. Some of us will encounter problems that others will never be able to fully understand because they cannot see things as we do or feel what we feel. By extension, there are no uniformly applicable solutions to people’s personal problems. One-size-fits-all is no more valid in solving the difficulties people have in dealing with their lives than it is in clothing their bodies.

I see internal, mental, differences as the last (or next?) frontier of human diversity. The way I see it, we will not have fully embraced our diversity until we have learned to understand our internal differences and to treat them with acceptance, respect, and compassion – until we are prepared to treat all people as the unique individual beings that they are.

So much for the heavy stuff. Feel free to disagree, of course. Or tell me about your personal experiences with human diversity, internal or external.