The fear conundrum



How much fear do we want? Enough of it preserves our lives. Too much of it diminishes our lives. Currently, the balance is skewed by an overload of fear. Anxiety, its clinical name, is in epidemic proportions..

Silhouette in mistIn favour of the measure to monitor social networks, it can be argued that it can significantly improve security agencies’ ability to deal with terrorist organizations. The claim is that intelligence agencies that monitor the networks, in many cases, can protect their territory from terrorist attacks. For instance, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), after keeping movement on extremist groups’ social networks under surveillance, has been able to arrest several terrorist suspects and allegedly disrupt their terrorist plots.

Yet how much fear do we want? Enough of it preserves our lives. Too much of it diminishes our lives. Currently, the balance is skewed by an overload of fear. Anxiety, its clinical name, is in epidemic proportions.

Employment is less secure. Computing and robotics shrink the number of jobs. Domestic violence, bullying and suicide make terrible the lives of many Australians. Progressive political leadership freezes in the face of conservative attack. Terrorist threats, unknown decades ago, require new organizations, structures, laws and restrictions. There is growing unease about inequality. And the media knows a scary story will sell.

Internationally, climate change threatens the global future. Defence spending, with surgical and large-scale killing capacity, increases daily. Several, formerly stable, countries have unstable leaders. Terrorism, which by definition terrifies, becomes an everyday experience.

Our fear of non-survival is so powerful that we can easily become unhinged or be manipulated by unscrupulous politicians. It is easy.

It goes like this. "We are being threatened by those evil people over there. These are extraordinary times. Trust me, do whatever I say and you will be safe, you will survive.’ ‘Sounds good what do we have to give you to protect us?’ Give me the extra powers I need and some of your freedoms. And I need access to your thinking and base fears.’"

So runs the contract, which operates at observable and obscured unconscious levels. It has a label: Fight-Flight.


"Our fear of non-survival is so powerful that we can easily become unhinged or be manipulated by unscrupulous politicians. It is easy."


Citizens need to believe that the force which threatens is evil, but we are good. Only the strong will survive, so the vulnerable and infirm will have to be sidelined. Opposition to, or questioning of, the leadership threatens governing authority and divides, whereas unity, even if superficial, is strength. There is not enough time to reflect, to consider, to value wisdom.

Beneficiaries are the arms manufacturers and suppliers of security. While other budgets are cut, the defence budget grows unquestioned. Alliances fostered with bully regimes, either across the Pacific or in the Middle East, make enemies for us and endanger us. As John Menadue argues: 'Terrorists are over here because we are over there.'

Our linkage with the unwinnable, but pariah-making, wars in Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, Iran, Syria has been as silly as it is tragic. Australia had a Prime Minister who sent the Australian army into Iraq on a lie. This caused many of us to cringe with guilt about the civilian lives lost. We lament the shattered lives of ex-service men and women. It made Australia a force in the destabilization of the Middle East.

From this instability, and its resentment, grew the terrorist forces of Al Qaida, the Taliban and Daesh. 

If there is nothing to be feared except fear itself maybe it is time to ask: "How much of it do we need or want? What does this threat distract us from? What would lessen the threat overburden? Since fear is irrational, what happens when we apply the light of reason to it?"

In three areas we lose quality of life while fear freezes our psyche. The first loss is the absence of an inspiring future vision, which would unite us and make us want to work and to live happily together. Such a vision would honour the original landowners—and we would ask them for inclusion.

That vision would be our goal. It would provide our motivating values and our unique potential for greatness. It would entail a way of emerging from our national dependent adolescence; we could become an adult interdependent nation. We could proudly increase the number of friendly nations, while reducing our number of confected enemies.

We could uphold fairness and decency by regulating the anti-social behaviours of politicians, bureaucrats, and global conglomerates. We could address the enemies within, who are often more dangerous, day to day, than those without. We could have better governance, rather than the best government money can buy.

Thirdly, we could realize that the true capital of our nation is in the hearts and minds of our people. We could foster the soul and spirit of our artists and innovators who are linked to the land on which we live. We could give priority to reflecting on our lives. Identifying what we are in favour of, which would transcend what we are against.

Healthy, realistic, inspiring hope would then counterbalance anxiety.



Michael D. Breen is a humanistic and organizational psychologist. He lives in the southern Highlands of New South Wales and practices Zen Buddhism, learning from his chooks.







Topic tags: Michael D. Breen, fear



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It goes like this. "We are being threatened by those evil people over there. These are extraordinary times. Trust me, do whatever I say and you will be safe, you will survive.’ ‘Sounds good what do we have to give you to protect us?’ Give me the extra powers I need and some of your freedoms. And I need access to your thinking and base fears.’" Ever read Erich Fromm's 'Fear of Freedom', and 'The Art of Loving'? The first is analysing the problem you are discussing here, the second provides an answer to it - a very broad-reaching and realistic treatise on human love. And then, there's "The Sane Society", which explains how a whole society can go insane, be insane, something I think we are and have been going through since God was declared 'dead' and haven't yet come to grips with regarding how to live in a vacuum of meaning. Usually it ends in devolution back to survival mode, which, yes, is fueled on fear. Ah, what a tangled web we weave. I understand your learning from chooks. (

Stephen de Weger | 07 August 2017  

As you would know from your clinical training, there are several sorts of anxiety related disorders and there are conflicting opinions as to their origins and treatment. So, to class them all as 'anxiety' and suggest they are all due simply to 'fear' and then apply that diagnosis and your purported 'solutions' to national and world affairs is, in my opinion, going too far, which is a pity, because there is much merit in what you say. The Quakers have always seemed to me one of the saner Christian groups and their beliefs and practices in individual and group decision making exemplary. These decisions don't come down ex cathedra but are made very much at grass roots level. Obviously they make group statements but these are all agreed upon according to 'the sense of the meeting'. Quakers have traditionally been pacifists, although some have, following their consciences, served in wars, such as World War 2. They believe in conciliation rather than aggression. Their nonviolent confrontation of authority existed well before Gandhi or Martin Luther King. The political opinionati often deride the British Labor leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for his stand on nuclear disarmament and it is a moot point as to whether the UK will ever unilaterally disarm, but he has made a moral point. Perhaps there are examples already there we can follow?

Edward Fido | 07 August 2017  

A high level of anxiety is normal mode for many of us. Your three proposals at the conclusion of this article are thoughtful and inspiring. Thanks to those chooks of yours.

Pam | 07 August 2017  

"How much fear do we want?".... It is the object of our fear that is important, not the amount of fear. The Bible assures us that 'Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom'. Much of the underlying cause of Fear, both for Christians and Muslims, is fear of losing our Traditions, which have given us comfort in past times, but now seem to be leaving us bereft. Each religion is a community interpretation of God's dealings with us, tailored to our situation, and so making us feel 'special' or 'chosen'. Therefore we cling to it regardless of deeper considerations, and feel threatened if we lose our 'certainties'. But God calls each individual to start from where they are, and to follow the path that leads them to closer union with the divine. Thus "Family", which should be a stepping stone, can become a stumbling block. Giving outdated 'Family Traditions' the reverence due to God alone is akin to worshipping False gods.This is what we should fear.

Robert Liddy | 07 August 2017  

Hi Michael and Stephen , You are both completely correct. The Pollies love scaring us! Sadly the 24 hour media cycle only makes our fear phobia worse. No wonder we have an increasingly paranoid society !

Gavin | 07 August 2017  

Anxiety in epidemic proportions? I must be living in a different world. Disillusionment with the modern world, definitely - but fear and anxiety, definitely not. Maybe the chooks have got it wrong, Michael. "The fear of non-survival is so powerful" is indeed true in the rational human being and attests to the psychological disturbance that promotes euthanasia by those who are not themselves suffering, in contrast to the suffering who cling to life to the very end and rarely request to be put down. Perhaps our innate desire to live far outweighs our fear and anxiety.

john frawley | 07 August 2017  

Thanks Michael. Your reflection on the problem of fear is on the mark. For me, one of the most salient points is that "the enemies within ... are often more dangerous, day to day, than those without." Thank you for your wise and insightful words.

Jo Dunin | 07 August 2017  

Mr Breen writes like an Old Testament prophet might have spoken in our 21st century. In the advertising industry there is an aphorism: Sex Sells. In politics there is an axiom: Fear trumps reality. As a psychologist Mr Breen would be aware that Freud the younger argued that anxiety (clinical name for fear) was a vicarious manifestation or transformation of sexual tension not discharged through normal sexual activity. Governments (or leaders in any organisation) can evoke/provoke the emotion of anxiety by raising danger signals in front of their subjects. They tell their subjects that their puny efforts against the danger(s). are or would be ineffective. The people become vacillating and disorganised; destructive impulses can occur; their anxiety is augmented with anger. Once released in the community this mix of emotions is difficult to control. Strong measures must be enforced. We have seen this happening dramatically in recent times in countries like the Philippines and Venezuela. There are others which I won't name for lack of space. Sad. Is there a solution? I hope so for Hope (and trust in 'a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough hew them how we may') is all I have to suggest.

Uncle Pat | 07 August 2017  

I am pessimistic about the future, a pessimism that can be rationally justified. Clinical anxiety is not the same thing. It is an illness arising from physiological abnormalities. Similarly, sadness or even reactive depression is very different from the illness, clinical depression. By suggesting otherwise, we trivialise the situation of people who are very ill and do do harm by doing so.

Sheelah Egan | 07 August 2017  

Great thanks for this highly apposite opinion piece, Michael. It's exactly what crossed my mind when I read Achbishop Anthony Fisher's anti-Marriage Equality fervorino this morning.

Dr Michael Furtado | 07 August 2017  

Just replying to John Frawley on one point. Having met thousands of hospital patients as an hon.chaplain now for about 19 years - not a very adequate one but trying to rely on the good Lord, there are many who suffer or who are completely worn out and who at the end of their lives do simply want want to die (recently an old lady who asked me desperately to help her to do that). Too many have pain that is not being adequately relieved or pain that CANNOT be adequately relieved. Morphine e.g. may needed even if indirectly that hastens their death - as in my father's case : not the intention. I still do not believe in "euthanasia".

John Bunyan | 10 August 2017  

Uncle Pat: The "divinity that shapes our ends" has done well so far; guiding the pure energy that started our universe some 15 billion years ago through the formation of the atoms that are essential for life as we now it, on to the beginning of life on Earth almost 5 billion years ago, then through the combinations of one cell lives to the development of multi-cellular life, culminating in self-aware, rational humans, capable of knowing, loving, and serving their Creator. Because we do not always live up to our potential is not a reason to lose hope, but an incentive to strive harder to cooperate with that divine influence that has guided us so far and so well.

Robert Liddy | 11 August 2017  

Mr Liddy. Thank you for your encouragement. Would that I had studied Cosmology and Theology. I was seduced at an early age by English Literature. I had/have a particular admiration for that great philosophical versifier Alexander Pope. In his poetic Essay on Man he wrote: "Hope springs eternal in the human breast / Man never IS, but always TO BE blest." Of course Hope is linked with Faith. As we read in Hebrews 11:1 "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

Uncle Pat | 12 August 2017  

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