Wednesday, January 04, 2023

Review: The Gift of Fear

While I enjoyed listening Gavin De Becker's The Gift Of Fear, I'm fairly certain Shira didn't appreciate it nearly as much. That's because I kept trying to recount the latest anecdote I'd heard from the text, and I'm sure it all fell felt hearing this second hand. I'd almost always end my attempted retelling with, 'babe, you've just got read the book.'

The Gift of Fear is Becker's prescription for staying safe in a world filled with hazards. Here's my very brief summary:

  • Fear is good.
  • Worry is bad.
  • Violence has warning signs.

While these concepts may appear provocative, I found Becker's arguments to be convincing.

Fear is good. Fear is one of the signals that our brain sends our body. Other less dramatic signals include curiosity, gut-feelings, intuition, worry and anxiety. Becker's suggestion is that these sensations are quite valuable, and should be respected like our other senses. That's not because they're mystical in nature, but because they are our own bodies communicating what our other senses have already learned.

Just like you dull your senses when you put on noise canceling headphones and walk through your neighborhood, you dull your senses when you write off, and ultimately ignore, worry, anxiety and fear.

Continuing the analogy, if you are strolling your neighbored and here a loud noise from behind, your first reaction would be to turn around and look to see if you are in danger. Becker calls for you to do the same thing when you get a 'bad feeling.' That is, acknowledge the feeling and use your other senses to determine what action you should take.

And finally, some sounds are programmed for us to take action. Years ago I was running at night and heard a sharp cracking noise, I instinctively took off like my life depended on it. And that's because it did. I happened to be steps away from a massive tree that gave way due to wet conditions. Fear, Becker argues, is a signal that deserves action first, analysis later.

Worry is bad. In a sense worry is a signal, so it's inherently useful. Respect it, unpack it and move on. But constant worry is a problem because it leaves no space for other signals to get through. If you worry every time you approach a specific intersection, then you can't depend on the fear signal getting through when you really should be concerned at that intersection.

If you find yourself in a regular state of worry, then it's time to take action to figure out why and take steps to alleviate this worry.

Violence has warning signs. Becker argues that nearly all violent events have markers, often times going back years. The employee or boy friend who acts violently had no choice but to show you months or even years of warnings. Much of The Gift of Fear goes through examples of these warning signs, though Becker makes the point that you need not memorize them; just listen to your intuition. Still, hearing these warning signs inoculates you to them, and makes recognizing them easier.

While I'm ready to recommend Becker's book to all who are college age and above, I do have some points to quibble with. At times, the book reads as a sort of advertisement for his mega-elite security firm, which may turn off some.

The book's 'Get off the X' approach to violence may also be a point of contention for some. 'Getting off the X' refers to the principle that the most urgent need in a dangerous situation is to get away from the threat. Becker's approach throughout The Gift of Fear embraces a similar idea. For example, the goal is to safely decouple yourself from a dangerous partner or employee. Becker doesn't explore what society should do with these problematic individuals, or how to assist the next partner or employer that may get tangled in this person's behavior. I think that's reasonable given the focus of the book, but it does raise some interesting ethical and sociological questions which go unanswered.

One area that I wish the book had explored more concretely was the actions people should or shouldn't take in preparation for violence. Becker leaves hints throughout the book on his perspective on this, but I wish he'd been more direct.

For example, Becker claims that armed guards at your company's entrance can reduce safety by giving the false impression that security is "handled" and that employees can ignore their fear signals. At the same time, he praises security infrastructure like key cards, and procedures like deactivating key cards when an employee is fired. Why is one action considered a step back, and the other a step forward?

He also laughs off the notion of a couple that gets concealed carry permits to protect themselves and others during a mass shooting. He explains that they are more likely to shoot themselves then the bad guy. On the topic of mass shootings, would Becker consider the Until Help Arrives training to deal with mass casuality incidents as feeding anxiety and wasting time focusing on an unlikely scenario? Or, would he praise it for arming citizens with critical skills that educate and thereby reduce worry?

And what about shelter in place drills for children? Are they an important and useful safety precaution like fire drills? Or, do they just fill kids with anxiety which will leave them less safe?

My reading of Becker is that actions that reduce worry and provide concrete skills are a good thing. Actions that serve to amp up concern should be avoided. But that still leaves a lot of gray areas. For example, could key carded doors not give the same "security is handled" impression that armed guards do?

When I casually looked at the book's description, I saw that it was released in 2017. So I was more than a bit surprised when I got to the end of the epilogue and it was signed, 'Gavin De Becker, 1998'. The epilogue starts with the statement that the book had been out for a year. So The Gift of Fear is now 26 years old. I have to say, it's aged well.

One clue to its age was the opening chapter, which seemed to be a mishmash of political dog whistles. Becker explains that everyone is impacted by violence and that the world is a dangerous place; that's the kind of messaging I'd expect to hear from gun-toting conservative neighbor. In the same chapter, he also calls out the ridiculous availability of hand guns; a talking point I'd expect to hear from my liberal neighbor. He includes statements like "the government isn't going to save you," a message straight out of the libertarian handbook. And yet, Becker proudly explains that he has worked with top federal agencies to help institute polices; these are the kind of claims I'd expect to hear from someone who believes Government can and should be a force for good.

It was refreshing to these opinions spilled out together, and I wonder how much push back Becker would have received if he'd tried to start a best seller today with such a collection of statements.

Another sign that the book was written in the late 90's is the lack of discussion on school and other mass shootings. The Columbine High School Shooting, widely considered to be the first of its kind, happened in 1998. Though, Becker's prediction that one horrific event is often advertisement for future events does indeed hold true.

There's also no discussion of terrorism, a topic that would be hard to ignore after 9/11/2001.

I had to smile as Becker mentioned the absurd fear that Americans have for 'foreign viruses.' Yeah, not so absurd now is it?

For most Americans, violence remains a sort of contradiction. In many respects, we are safer now than ever. Yet at the same time, countless Americans are impacted by violence on a daily basis. There's no silver bullet for navigating this paradox, yet The Gift of Fear appears to be a useful addition to our safety toolbox. That's because its core premise is that you already have its invaluable tools at your disposal, you just need to give yourself permission to use them.

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