Fear Itself

I live with what some might describe as a moderate level of anxiety. Case in point: on our fridge is a handmade list of things to check before I leave the house.

Ensuring that the stove, coffee maker, and dryer are off are rookie compulsions. Having to check that my cats have water every time I step out because I obsessively worry that I will kill my beloved pets with negligence, I recognize, tips the balance towards “novice.”

But is worry always a bad thing? The optimist might say yes; bad things happen pretty rarely. You probably did lock the door, or turn off the stove. So why get all worried about it?

For realists, one simple fact remains: people really do burn their houses down all the time, using a combination of carelessness and items as mundane as smelly scented candles, overextended power strips (find me a single person out there who isn’t overextending their power strips), and crumb-filled toasters. I have come to understand that there are several approaches to this fact:

Not Good: Burning down the house because you’re a laid-back dude who doesn’t fret about turning off the stove before taking off for the long weekend.
Dysfunctional: Leaving movie theaters after 20 minutes to drive home and check the stove (that you turned off).
Functional: Checking the stove before you leave the house, thus removing the risk of both 1) burning the house down and 2) worrying over burning the house down.

And thus the leaving-the-house list was born.

As I’ve now outed myself as an “anxious realist,” I should clarify that I take the “realist” part very seriously; I’m not afraid of anything that doesn’t merit actual caution.  So, as a public service to the too-afraid and the not-afraid-enough, I present:

When To Be Afraid, When Not To Be Afraid: A Guide

When Not To Be Afraid: Mice

Despite being so cute as to inspire countless animators of children’s movies, a great number of people are really, really afraid of mice. Where’s the risk? They’re hardly bigger than a roll of dimes and they eat, according to an article on the Internet, “fallen fruits and seeds and garbage.” Sure, they aren’t perfect – all animals can carry “disease” (as can children, or dentists, or anything for that matter), and a mouse invading your pantry is definitely a major pain in the ass. But reacting to a single mouse like a peasant in plague-era Europe? A little out of proportion. Instead, save your fears for….

When To Be Afraid: Spiders

I have a healthy fear of all spiders because of the simple fact that some of them are dangerous. And I don’t mean regular dangerous – more like necrosis dangerous (fair warning: gross). So just avoid the dangerous ones, you say? Here’s the problem:

Safer just to stay away from  all of ‘em, I say.

When Not To Be Afraid: Bears

Living in a rural yet partially suburban part of the world, it’s only a matter of time before displaced wildlife gets into somebody’s garbage bins. Annoying, perhaps… but pee-your-pants scary? I just don’t get it; avoiding bears seems like a fairly straightforward task, particularly since there’s no need to ever approach one and they lack the opposable thumbs necessary for picking locks. See a bear? Close your car door and don’t feed it. Problem solved.

And it’s not like bears can appear, like lightning or muggers, in basically any situation. I ask you: what do each of these potentially vulnerable locations have in common?

Answer: The impossibility of a bear attack. In fact, there’s only one situation where I can imagine a loose bear inducing serious fear…

When To Be Afraid: Camping

Humanity came up with the concept of shelter based on an understanding that the natural world has some inherent hazards. Communing with nature by going building-free may remove some of the more unpleasant aspects of the modern world (smog, work emails) but it also strips away the protections offered by timber frames and deadbolts.  In addition to lightning and falling tree limbs, sleeping with nothing but a piece of polyester between you and the wilderness seems like an open invitation to carnivorous wildlife and Deliverance-type crazies.  Here a little bit of caution seems well-placed but, unlike suburban bear panic, no one seems all that worried.  Some fear, provided it is the kind that impels bringing along a cell phone or a can of mace, may not be a bad thing.

Just remember to check the stove before you leave.

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