Cutting Edge Training

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Fear in the Warrior’s Life

by Tom on May 2, 2011 05:20

“…the hero and the coward live just a decision away from the other.”

A recent discussion of fear caused me to think about the part that “fear” plays in the warrior’s response to the need to act in dangerous circumstances, where that danger is life threatening and a real possibility. 

The discussion started with a bashing of fear citing how debilitating and horrible having fear is to the human existence.  I believe that fear, in and of itself, is neutral…it’s really neither good nor bad.  It just is.  Fear is a part of being human.  It is our response to fear—our decisions and resulting behavior—that is the real issue.  In fact, there are times when fear is good and justifies threatening and even deadly responses (e.g., pointing a gun at someone whose behavior has placed others in imminent fear.  This creates a fear response from the antagonist—he stops his threatening behavior because he fears he is going to be shot, and injured or killed).  So fear has a place that can be healthy when it motivates people to behave appropriately.

Fear as a motivator is the mechanism by which many people achieve great riches, or why they get up and go to work every day even though they would rather sit in the sun and relax, or why they behave in socially acceptable ways.  Fear can be a co-motivator with healthy pride in achievement, causing warriors to perfect and maintain their skills, as well as to seek out new and different ideas, methods, and knowledge.  Warriors understand that no matter how prepared they are at this moment, they cannot prepare for everything, but they can be better prepared to meet the unexpected through a greater and more diverse skill and knowledge base.

Fear is a problem when we experience a degree or level of fear that paralyzes and causes us to do nothing when we should be doing something (even running is sometimes the appropriate response to fear).  Paralyzing fear is created when we let our imagination to overwhelm us, focusing on “what if,” and fixating on our mortal vulnerabilities.  When the mind has not been disciplined through difficult, arduous training, the mind can spin helplessly out of control, and the paralysis is complete unless something greater shocks us out of our stupor.

Fear can become debilitating when we deny it for too long.  The fear may be so great that we believe we cannot face it, so we consciously stuff it down.  Eventually, however, the fear will make itself known through negative psychological or physical manifestations such as mental or physical paralysis, numbness, and disease.

If we really get down to it, fear seldom occurs in a vacuum.  It is generally the companion of something more sinister (despair, anger, hopelessness, danger etc.).  So really fear is just the messenger of something that is already present or something that is coming.  Healthy fear does not generally happen by accident.  Perhaps the old adage of “Don’t shoot the messenger” is appropriate here.  Whether you see fear as a good or bad thing, as a stand-alone plague or a tag-along to a much bigger issue, fear will be present in a warrior’s life.  It is in our response or lack of response to this universal emotion that truly tests and forges who we are.

As Gavin DeBecker suggests, “fear is a gift,” and not a curse.  I don’t believe that fear is a “monster.”  It is what we do in the presence of fear that is telling about the individual.  In the presence of fear, our character is revealed.  Having been a police officer, I will tell you that there were times when I was definitely afraid, but I chose to do what needed to be done.  And in life there are still times when I am afraid, but I step forward anyway, through that fear. 

Am I schizophrenic because I feel the fear yet continue my life in a positive way?  Should I kid myself, deny that I feel fear, and live in pseudo-humility asserting all the while that I am not really scared at all?  I say NO to both.  I think that the hero and the coward live just a decision away from the other.  I think that the myth of the never-nervous, always calm, going forth and conquering warrior is just that…a fantasy.  Lt. Col. David Hackworth (US Army, deceased) once said, “Being brave on a battlefield is not letting anyone know you’re afraid.”  Fearlessness before and during battle is simply a perception by others, not something that is experienced except by the foolish or mentally ill…it is not reality.

I believe we should recognize our human fear and accept its capacity to motivate or cripple us.  As a warrior and trainer of warriors, I offer this to our students:  ”feel the fear and do what is required of you.”  Courage is not about the absence of fear, but what you do in the presence of fear, while under the influence of fear.  We train to respond in times of danger.  Imagine what your response is going to be—believe it, taste it, smell it—and then work your skills and tactics until your response is automatic.

The bottom line is that each of us must accept the fact that as a human, you and I will die one day—maybe today.  Also accept the fact that, as a warrior, you and I invite the possibility of death because we choose to run to the sound of gunfire.  Because it doesn’t matter that I am going to die.  What matters is that I die as a warrior if that is what God demands of me, stepping into my fear and not hiding from it.  If I can accept that, I need never fear being afraid—I will simply be whatever I am despite my state of fear.