Sunday, January 20, 2013

Fear, danger, and risk

I hardly ever watch movies in the theater, but I make exceptions now and then. As a long-time Tolkien fan, I went to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey twice over the holidays: once with coworkers right after it came out and once with family when we were out of town a week or two later. But that's tangential to the topic at hand.

Included in the parade of trailers before the movie was a preview of After Earth, which is not one I'll go out of my way to see on the big screen, but will probably try to see once it comes out on video. In this trailer, there is a voice-over of Will Smith delivering the following quote:

You must realize that fear is not real. It is a product of thoughts you create. Do not misunderstand me: danger is very real, but fear is a choice.

This immediately resonated with me, and shortly thereafter I found myself starting to say nearly the same words to my daughter, F, while teaching her to ice-skate [1].

The juxtaposition of fear and danger is an interesting one. Learning to separate the mental and physical aspects of a situation is often critical to overcoming major obstacles or achieving difficult goals.

Another distinction I frequently make is that between danger and risk. Risk is brought about by circumstances in which things could go wrong. Danger is when we ignore the necessity to observe precautions, or fail to adequately prepare, increasing the probability that things will go wrong.

I often tell my kids that sometimes it's okay to do something that you know is risky. But I'm going to get mad if they're surprised when they get hurt doing it. Failure to recognize risk will almost certainly lead to danger. [2]

Through the honing of skill and proper use of equipment, we mitigate risk and gain the confidence to overcome fear. When fear is present, it is useful to acknowledge it, examine it, and try to see what it is telling us. Is it some gut instinct telling us that we've wandered into dangerous territory? Or is it just a mental block which we are prepared to overcome with will power?

There's nothing quite as exhilarating as pushing through a frightening situation and proving to ourselves that we're capable of more than we previously believed; or showing that the hard work we've put in to prepare for such an eventuality has paid off. Ignoring safety is foolish, but paying too much attention to fear can only lead to regret.

[1] I don't really know how to ice-skate either. Imagine the blind leading the blind, but substitute vision with friction.

[2] Have I started to repeat myself like some senile old coot? I don't remember if I wrote about this theme before or not, but apparently I'm too lazy to go back and check.

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