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The Gift of Fear (and some memories)

written by: Kosjenka Muk

“Intuition is always right in at least two important ways:
1. It is always in response to something.
2. It always has your best interest at heart.
(...) Our interpretation of intuition is not always right.”

Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear


This time I want to present a book that I liked very much because it fits so well with my experience and my values. It's called "The Gift of Fear" by Gavin de Becker. The author is a specialist in security issues and in his experience, many people could prevent becoming victims of a crime if they listened to their inner warning signals – to their fear – on time. Many people, however, do not, because they don't want to appear socially awkward – they are worried of being seen as impolite, unreasonable or overly emotional in case their fear proved to be unfounded.

There is an inner struggle between our social and our individualistic instincts all the time. Some of the time, our instincts are not appropriate or constructive within our complex society. Some of the time, however, they can make a real difference in your life. The wisdom is in recognizing which ones to follow. That is a skill that comes with experience.

An example that de Becker gives is of a man who entered a shop only to immediately feel uncomfortable and threatened without any visible reason. He chose to listen to his fear and leave – and later found out that the sole customer he saw when entering was just about to commit armed robbery in which one person was killed.

When asked what could have made him feel that way, the man initially couldn't give an answer. After some pondering, however, he remembered some details that he didn't notice consciously, but his unconscious mind apparently did. He said that the "customer" had a heavy jacket on that was inappropriate for the warm weather. Also, the clerk appeared tense – he barely glanced at the incoming man and quickly returned his attention to the man in the jacket. There was a van with a running motor and two men inside in front of the store. There were probably other details, too subtle for a conscious mind to notice – but not the subconscious.

De Becker writes: "Predicting the routine behavior of adults in the same culture is so simple that we rarely even bother to do it consciously. We react only to the unusual, which is a signal that there might be something worth predicting. We intuitively evaluate people all the time, quite attentively, but they only get our conscious intention when there is a reason. We see it all, but we edit out most of it. Thus, when something does call out to us, we ought to pay attention."

I can testify with my own experience how important it is to recognize the value of fear. I generally trust my intuition and it had served me well countless times, but in context of fear there is one memory that stands out in my mind.

Around my 27th birthday, I was on Big Island, Hawaii, where I agreed with a local guesthouse owner to be her "helping guest" for two months (to do some manual work for her in exchange for a room and food). I left after two weeks because I was treated as an unpaid servant rather than a "helping guest", and ended up spending a month and a half in a tent on a beach – but that's another story.

What I want to talk about happened around day 11-12 of my visit to Hawaii, when I went to a beach on a late afternoon. I didn't have a vehicle, so I had to walk 40-45 mins from the guesthouse to the nearest beach on a fairly empty road. By that time, I was quite relaxed as I experienced most people in Hawaii as generally friendly so walking there by myself wasn't a problem.

That evening, I stayed on the beach longer than usual to take some photos of a quite spectacular sunset. I expected that I had just about 40-45 mins after sunset to return to the guesthouse before dark – but my calculation didn't include the fact that Hawaii are much closer to the equator than my home and it gets dark much faster after sunset than I was used to. So after 20 or so minutes of walking back I found myself in darkness. I had just arrived to a long, very straight and lonely 3 km stretch of the road.

this very sunset

I wasn't overly worried, but there was a little nagging voice in my stomach urging me to at least cross to the left side of the road, so that a potential attacker coming from behind me on the right lane would have less chance to surprise me. That was the first fear-based decision that might have saved my life that evening. Healthy fear will not paralyze you (except when being paralyzed is beneficial for your survival); healthy fear is action-oriented and motivating.

"What many dismiss as a coincidence or a gut feeling is in fact a cognitive process, faster than we recognize and far different from the familiar step by step thinking we rely on so willingly. Nature's greatest accomplishment, the human brain, is never more efficient or invested than when its host is at risk. Then, intuition is catapulted to another level entirely, a height that can accurately be called graceful, even miraculous. " (from "The Gift of Fear")

I crossed the road, continued to walk for some more time and I was already getting close to the first curve after 3 km of straight road, when I heard a lone car behind me. When it came close, it slowed down, crossed to my side of the road (if I had stayed on the right side, the guy's job would have been much easier) and expertly stopped only centimeters away from me, almost knocking me down. The words "Who are you?" were hissed through somebody's teeth.

I saw a huge man who radiated something I never felt before from a human being – absolute, cold hatred and aggression with no space for anything else. In hindsight, I guess it was my first (and hopefully last) encounter with a gang member, who perhaps came to Hawaii for a vacation and decided to use an easy chance. He reached through his window and grabbed my sleeve together with my backpack strap and some flesh. He pulled strongly towards himself. I put my palms against his car – there was nothing else to hold on to - and resisted. Surprisingly, I managed to hold on. We struggled like that for 10 or so incredibly long seconds.

Finally, he apparently decided that it was not a good idea to stay on the wrong side of the road so close to a curve. He suddenly let go of me – I fell painfully backwards – quickly drove on and disappeared behind the curve. I picked myself up and continued as fast as I could. There was not much else I could have done – all the land on the sides of the road was heavily fenced with barbed wire and every path was blocked with big gates.

A few more cars came from behind me. I felt jumpy and considered hiding, but there was nowhere to hide. Nothing happened, though, so I started to relax a little. Then I heard a car coming from the front – soon to appear from the curve. My fear suddenly peaked. It urged me to at least lay in a shallow ditch on the side of the road if nothing else.

Exactly as "The Gift of Fear" warns against, my conscious mind jumped in and started to argue and downplay the situation. "I'm just exaggerating... Not everybody around here is a criminal... Probably nothing would happen... It would be ridiculous if I jumped in the ditch whenever a car came by..."

"No animal in the wild, suddenly overcome with fear, would spend any of its mental energy thinking, "It's probably nothing." We, in contrast to every other creature in nature, choose not to explore – and even to ignore – conscious signals. Every day people engaged in clever defiance of their own intuition become, in mid-thought, victims of violence and accidents. So when we wonder why we are victims so often, the answer is clear: It is because we are so good at it." (from "The Gift of Fear")

Luckily, my subconscious then apparently came to the decision that my rational mind was hopelessly stupid and shouldn't be allowed to vote. The second before the car appeared out of the curve, my body simply took over and I found myself in the ditch, half-hidden behind a small (and thorny, and full of spiders) bush.

The car came close, slowed down and came to stop sideways from me – only a couple of meters away. It was the same car. I expected the worst. Several heartbeats sounded loudly in my ears – and then, blissfully, the car moved, turned around and soon disappeared behind the curve again. A few days later, I realized that there was a small layby at that spot – a convenient place for the gangster to stop and look down the road. His front lights allowed him to see down the road, including most of the ditch in front of him – but made him unable to see through the darkness on his side.

I'm deeply grateful for that moment of commanding fear. That single second might have made a difference between my life and death, or at least severe trauma. Was it a lucky guess? Did my subconscious mind register something in his non-verbal behavior that indicated his intentions? Or calculated the time he would need to find a place to turn around and come back? Whichever, it had proven itself reliable. I still shiver sometimes to think how close I came to ignoring it.

I'm not suggesting ignoring conscious logic – that would be unbalanced and I don't believe in extremes and oversimplifying of any kind. Yet too many people consider emotions to be a weakness or a hindrance, rather than an important font of information. Of course, the problem with emotions is that many people don't distinguish between healthy and immature emotions, but that can be changed with a bit of effort. (Check this article for more info.) There is nothing weak with emotions, the only weakness can be in how we use them and deal with them.

De Becker emphasizes the difference between anxiety/worry and healthy fear. Anxiety and worry are not related to specific present circumstances, but a "protection against future disappointment”. In fact, anxiety and worry can distract us from noticing healthy, realistic fear when it occurs. Therefore, there is no need to be constantly alert and searching for possible danger. Your unconscious mind can do it much better than your conscious self – if you give it space. You only need to pay attention to spontaneous, unexpected moments of fear – and act upon them. If you trust your instincts, paying attention to your fear can actually make you feel safer and more confident.

On the next page, I'll summarize some of the warning signals from "The Gift of Fear", which indicate that a suspicious person is probably trying to manipulate you. (Click here for part 2.)

"Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate." - C.G. Jung

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