30 Goals – # goal 14 – Conquer a fear

No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. (Edmund Burke. A Philosophical Inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and the beautiful. 1756)

While pursuing a criminal across the rooftops of San Francisco, Scottie, a detective , slips and finds himself dangling from the gutter of a tall building. His fellow police officer tries to rescue him but soon after, Scottie watches him fall to his death. It is soon after that when he realizes , with the help of the doctors, that he has developed acrophobia ( a fear of heights). Haunted by his guilt, because of the loss of his colleague, he quits the police force.

In Vertigo, the famous Hitchkock movie, the plot revolves around John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson’s (James Stewart) phobia, which either results in the tragic loss of human lives because he cannot control this fear or because this weakness allows other people to manipulate him. Until he decides to take control of his life and his fears…

I don’t think that, like ‘Scottie’, there is any of us who has NEVER felt threatened by fear. Any kind of fear,no matter how significant or insignificant it may have seemed at the time. The fear of losing a loved one, a fear of heights, a fear for someone’s safety, the fear of failing, etc… What is true, in fact, is that this basic human emotion can undermine our whole existence so much so that to assume that our life can be carried out in an arena void of fear is , to say the least, naive.

Once faced with the ‘Monster’, people usually react in two ways,: ‘fight or flight’! They will either face the threat or flee. A lot of times, a fear exists and ‘persists’ only because it hides a disheartening truth for us, at which we turn our back, in the hope that it will disappear. This is typical DENIAL. What we basically do is that we block away all that frightens and overwhelms us, whatever may force us away from our comfort zone.

Like ‘Scottie’ in Vertigo, people in that situation may initially keep ‘a distance’ from what scares them , exactly because they feel defeated and disabled and it is difficult for them to look at that situation realistically. Until, I think, they realize that the whole situation has easily put them in a ‘bubble’ and trapped them forever. Unless they finally ACT!

in a bubble

An ex-student of mine , Nastazia, fits that description. A girl that was preparing for a specific English language exam because she was going to study abroad. A meticulous and  serious student . She would study hard, she would follow all the advice given. Speaking in English was not her favorite part of the exam, though. Right from the beginning, she told me she did not feel comfortable with it but she knew it would eventually be fine. Since, every time we had a lesson, I managed to make her speak more and more and I realized her level was actually not that bad, I thought there was hope! I thought it was just a simple fear that she would soon be able to succumb. But it wasn’t…

As time went by, the progress she was making was not really significant,so it felt strange whenever she reassured me that everything would be fine with the speaking part of the exam. That she knew she didn’t speak a lot but it was not a big thing. She was acting as if she didn’t realize the problem actually existed ! Sometimes, when she started to speak, this would only last for a few minutes and end in disappointment. A lot of times, when she would eventually talk for more than 2 minutes, she would stop, and would ask me to speak in Greek. Then, after a pause, she would start again saying she COULD do it, she knew HOW TO!  Only to quit again a bit later. She reminded me of ‘Scottie’, who was showing Midge (his ex-girlfriend ) how he could control his fear and rid of it little by little, but in the end the fear kicked in and he resorted in her arms like a little child. I actually experienced a similar scene with her at some point…

I tried several techniques and tricks but one way or another she would hide ‘inside her bubble’ leaving me out..

Until one day, just a few weeks later. That day, she suddenly had a terrible tantrum, which was totally unexpected. She couldn’t cope with her fear anymore. After I let her calm down, we started talking. I think that was the day she realized she had had enough with it and that’s why she had this outburst!

During our discussion, a couple of things came out : first, her fear was the result of a very judgemental teacher’s behavior when she was very young . Second, we established that an exam is not the end of the world. Her life did not and should not depend on a test. Third, we agreed that once you realize that you start feeling trapped in a situation, then it’s time you acted!

And she did. She started slowly to open up more and to build her confidence . Not a very strong one ,but definitely stronger than before. In the end, she managed to get a decent mark at her exams, not a high one , of course , but a decent one. I remember when she came out, the first thing she said was : ‘It wasn’t that difficult , you know, after all!’ Above all, Nastazia confronted this life moment regardless how scary it looked to her. That was perhaps the most important lesson she gained that day.

Fear shouldn’t be seen as an entity that controls us; instead we should confront it as a force which gives us a choice between affirming the truth and denying it. Schopenhauer, and the existentialists that followed later, believed that everything in the universe is driven by a primordial will to live and for him this was the most fundamental aspect of reality. A bit later, Nietzsche made the will to power the basis of the new values created. Why? One has to remember the sense of joy that comes from exercising power. According to Nietzche, this power is not necessarily power over other people, but any successful attempt to overcome obstacles and suffering .

We, educators, are not necessarily neither psychologists nor philosophers. We are not here to solve our students’ psychological problems. Nor are we here JUST to teach them our subject and then avoid any other bond with them. We have a complex role ,part of which IS to identify any possible difficulties our students might be going through and then suggest, perhaps, possible ways to deal with them or refer them to the right person. Teaching adults is even more complex because we always have to keep in mind that when these adults enter our classes, they might already carry a ‘heavy’ load. Most of the times, we mainly need to show sensitivity to them and to any insecurities they might bear. And to remind them that ‘to say ‘yes’ to life is to say ‘yes’ to our attempt to overcome obstacles’!