Tuesday, May 4, 2010


What are you afraid of?

From the dictionary:

1. a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.

2. a specific instance of or propensity for such a feeling: an abnormal fear of heights.

3. concern or anxiety; solicitude: a fear for someone's safety.

4. reverential awe, esp. toward god.

5. that which causes a feeling of being afraid; that of which a person is afraid: Cancer is a common fear.

What is it about fear? It's safe to say we all experience it, if not every day, then quite often as we walk through life. Fear is a really, really scary thing. It makes us hesitate, isolate, capitulate. Along with Anger, Love, Suffering, Joy, and Hummus, it’s one of our seminal emotions. It’s written into our DNA. I mean, from a biological perspective, fear makes a lot of sense.

When we were Neanderthal people, we HAD to be afraid. Fear literally saved our lives. We see the remnants of it today- we still fear spiders, snakes, bears, sharks, and Phil Spector. As primitive beings, in order not to be eaten alive or stung or maimed, we were afraid of those things capable of hurting us, we ran away. I mean, check out Lucy's husband up there, he's packin' serious cro-magnon heat. We're all scared of death, but I think that idea is something I'd rather discuss later. Anyways, since early times, the fear thing has kind of stuck, since we still instinctually fear ugly, nasty, fanged creatures today.

But most of the things we also fear today have nothing to do with scary animals. Indeed, we’re scared of scary people, like creepers in the back alley or people that yell really loud. It goes much further than that though. We fear concepts, like uncertainty and failure. We fear relationships, like break-ups or the threat of punishment from superiors. Some of our fears are totally illogical, like clowns or movie posters or the color yellow. And sometimes our greatest fears are within us- we’re scared of our own power, our ability, our potential.

What’s this all about? How have we come to this place in our anthropological history where we’ve taken a biological, emotional need and applied it to more complex psychological constructs? Part of it is that we have evolved as a species; our brains have gotten bigger, and we’ve created more rich and vivid elements of life. Yet the core genesis of fear, the need to avoid physically threatening situations, has been mostly eliminated by technology. We know how to kill or tame scary bugs and beasts. Some people carry weapons to make them feel safer. We have medicines that will even cure physical ailments from the natural world, like penicillin for disease and antidotes for venoms. In the physical world, there’s really nothing to be afraid of anymore. Yet fear is thriving- a much more powerful force probably than it was thousands of years ago.

As I like to do on this blog, I will tie this concept into improv. Improvisational theatre is a really, really scary thing. Even setting aside the notion of performing on stage under bright lights in front of people, getting up there without a script to guide us is something to be afraid of. Because, let’s face it, there’s a good chance what an improvisor will come up with will suck. Experienced improvisers have come to accept this. You can, and absolutely positively will, do a lot of terrible improv. You’ll do bad scenes, lots of them. Sure, you’ll do great ones, too. But no matter how much experience you have, how great your scene partner or team is, you’re going to do bad improv sometimes. That is a scary thought, I guess.

Is it though? Here’s the deal. Improv is risky. Like walking really close to a snake. But rather unlike with the snake, the risk of improv may also bring the reaping of a great reward. An experienced improvisor knows that the very thing that makes improv scary is also what makes it great, brilliant even. We don’t know what’s going to happen, so ANYTHING could happen. There’s a scary rabbit hole in every scene, and we’re taught to jump in it, and we don’t know where it’s going, but we don’t care, because it may very well lead to an awesome place. And we love that so, so much. So the improvisor has learned not to fear improv so much, just to accept its risks and cash in on the big payoff whenever it may come.

Can we take a page from this idea in life? I don’t know. I’ve done a lot of improv, and I think about this stuff a lot, and there are still things I’m really fucking scared of. It sucks, because I KNOW that fears are to be faced, then laughed at. But that stupid feeling is still there.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." He couldn't use his legs, so I'd imagine he'd know something about fear, since he couldn't run away from stuff and had to face his fears by default. Then again, maybe he's still full of shit. He did do the whole New Deal thing. Bazam! Topical.

I’d be interested to know what the five readers of this blog think about this. I believe we need fear, in some way, still. We need it to stay alive as we did at the dawn of our history. We may even want to fear.

Tell me what you think about fear. I’m actually afraid to ask.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, did you improv this whole thing?