Braille Monitor                                                     December 2007

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The Fear Factor

by Mark Stracks, MD

Mark StracksFrom the Editor: Dr. Mark Stracks is a member of the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania. He and his wife Kristen are active members of the Happy Valley Chapter of the Pennsylvania affiliate. He delivered the following address at the NFB of Pennsylvania’s 2006 convention.

The story is told of a homeless man who sought refuge and shelter inside a rail car in a large, urban train-yard at the end of the day. He apparently attempted to close the door, either to conceal himself or to fend off the elements. To his surprise the door locked, and it was only then that he realized that he had shut himself inside a refrigerator car with no way out.

He must have yelled, he might have pleaded, and perhaps he prayed. What is clear, however, is that he managed to write down his thoughts as he felt his demise approaching. He wrote of getting colder and colder, he wrote of finding it harder and harder to breathe. His last words trailed off as he slipped from consciousness. In the morning, when attendants opened the car door, they found the homeless man dead inside. Apparently he had succumbed to the cold and lack of oxygen. But had he? Authorities calculated that he had had an ample supply of air to survive the night. Moreover, the refrigerator car was broken; the temperature outside never dipped below the midfifties Fahrenheit.

I heard this story told at a business conference some years ago. The speaker was trying to make the point that our thoughts are powerful and that they can drive our destinies. I’ve thought about this story a lot over the years. What lessons can we take from this tale?
In the practice of psychiatry, my profession, I often spend a great deal of time with clients trying to help them understand why they act in certain ways or think about things with certain preconceptions. While it may be considered an oversimplification from a technical standpoint, I have come to believe that people think, feel, and act out of two basic constructs. These are the fear of something or the desire for something. Sometimes the thing that is feared is desired, and sometimes the thing that is desired is feared. Neither is a logical process; this is very important to understand. We are, by nature, emotional beings, and, if we do not train ourselves to avoid it, by default we will react with emotion.

Why should we choose to think about this topic in the context of blindness? After all, we are gathered here this weekend, the membership of the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania affiliate of a national organization and a movement that for more than fifty years has defined the upward mobility of blind people. We come here to convene in friendship and brotherhood. We come here to unite on issues important to us. We come here to debate the pathways to our horizons and beyond. Why talk of fear?

I have been an active member of this organization since 1992, and I have been an advocate concerning blindness for nearly twenty-five years. In following all of our legislative, technological, and social achievements as a group, I remain puzzled by one fact. The more we demonstrate that the blind can achieve security, equality, and opportunity, the more obvious it becomes that a number of those who could and should achieve these goals do not. Now I am not referring to those individuals who strive for their goals but are stymied in their pursuits by inept bureaucracies such as Pennsylvania’s own beloved state agency. I am not referring to those who are the victims of deliberate and calculated discrimination. I am referring to those who never make it out of the starting gate, to those who don’t dare to think beyond where they are to what they want. I would suggest that fear plays a role.

What do we know about fear? Fear is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “anxious concern,” or “reason for alarm.” When it is dramatic, we are aware of the cause. Many of us have had the experience of walking along a street when suddenly a car horn honks behind us or a car alarm goes off nearby. We are startled, we get concerned about what caused the car to honk or the alarm to go off, and we react. The one thing that is always true about fear is that something causes it. Nothing in the definition of fear, however, says that any particular thing must cause it, and in fact we find that what evokes fear in one individual often does not in another.

It is the nondramatic causes of fear, the little things that lead us to question inwardly our abilities, our desires, our very goals that I wish to talk about today. I would suggest that consideration of this subject is relevant for those of us who struggle to advance ourselves in the setting of our own blindness and those who work to help others. It is an important subject for those who are blind and those related to those who are blind. It is important for those who lead in our chapters and affiliates, and this means it is important for all of us because in one way or another every member of the National Federation of the Blind leads.

The one binding and universal fact of human interaction is that we interact as humans. That is, we bring the entirety of our experiences, beliefs, successes, and failures to the table when we interact with another person. Each experience that we have, good or bad, leaves an impression upon us, and the succession of experiences that we have through a lifetime builds one upon the other. We easily understand the simplest examples. My three-year-old daughter counted to twenty-four this weekend. Several weeks ago she couldn’t count to twenty without skipping fourteen and sixteen. It even became a joke after a while. But my wife and I would always approach the joke with a giggle and encourage her to keep trying, and lo and behold, she even got past twenty. Let us consider a more subtle example, however. I once saw a Vietnam veteran in therapy for nearly a year. This man was isolated from his family; he hadn’t seen his grown children in years. He had grown up a practicing and devout Catholic, and he hadn’t gone to church for years longer than he hadn’t seen his children. As I came to know this man, it became clear to me that this was not the way he always had been. He had considered himself a family man, as I said, a devout Catholic, and he enjoyed being with people in general. As with many veterans of war, it was his time in war that had affected him. But he was not a combat soldier; he was in charge of entertainment and helping to orient incoming troops to the culture of Vietnam.

With time and work we both came to understand that it was one tragic experience that this man had had in wartime that had scarred him. Now this is the key point. This man had not forgotten the experience; he remembered it clearly. What he had never done was to make the association between what he had gone through and the way he had changed. He had never made the association because he had been afraid to make it. What had happened to him caused such guilt, such shame, and such self-reproach in his own mind that, in the more than thirty years since the Vietnam War had ended, he had been completely unable to deal with the incident on his own. At first glance this may not seem as dramatic as the honking car, and certainly it is far more convoluted. The only real difference, however, when you get right to it, is that we understand what makes us fearful when we consider a honking car. This man did not understand, and he paid dearly for that for many years.

This is an extreme example, but I make it for a reason. In order to understand what drives fear, we must understand ourselves. If I want to achieve a goal and if time goes on and on and I do not reach that goal, it would be good for me to ask myself what is holding me back. I should make the point here that I believe that people are capable of achieving anything that they want to. It may not be easy, it may not happen quickly, but I see no reason why any person cannot achieve any goal. So, if I am capable and I am not achieving, why is that? Assuming that no system is holding me back, assuming that I can navigate any bureaucracy that might want to hold me back, the only thing left standing in my way is myself. I would suggest, then, that, if we come to a point where we think that we are holding ourselves back, it is quite possible that this is occurring out of fear.

We in the National Federation of the Blind are in a unique position. We stand at the forefront of an ongoing revolution that is moving blind individuals, once relegated to economic and social obscurity, to the forefront of the possibilities of achievement. We have the tools to navigate the bureaucracies. We have the expertise to fight wanton discrimination, and we have the knowledge to educate and raise up any individual who is blind. We have these things, and we have used them every day for more than fifty years in our organization. But I return to a question that I raised early on. Why does it seem like so many do not get out of the starting gate? Why do we still seem to leave so many behind?

To give an explanation of every cause of fear is beyond the scope of my talk today. Nor would I suggest that everyone needs to run home and set up an appointment with a therapist to ensure that he or she has mastered any underlying fears. I would suggest the following. It is important for all of us to take a long and hard look inside if we are not achieving all that we want to do. It is important to think about the things that we have been taught by individuals or groups who may have reacted to our blindness out of fear. Certainly society as a whole has done this. Witness the idiocy of truncated domes--millions upon millions of dollars spent to allay the fears of sighted people who don’t understand the value of appropriate mobility tools, mobility training, and the confidence that use of these bring to blind people.

Witness the attempts of organized education to hold blind people back for fear that they cannot manage the rigors of regular education, or the fear of those educators who suggest that not every blind child need learn Braille because they don’t want the child to look different or feel different. Worse, some fear that their power as educators might be threatened! They don’t apparently worry about the difference that people without high school diplomas feel, or the difference felt by those who can’t find employment because they cannot read effectively. Witness parents of blind children who, albeit out of love, try to protect their children from the bumps, bruises, and lessons of life that sighted children learn in order to grow and prosper? Isn’t it at least possible that, as we are exposed to these influences over and over again, some of the fears that drive these individuals and groups will rub off on us? Might we start to believe some of the things that they say? Do we see anything in our experience that suggests another possibility?

The best antidote to fear is understanding, and the best source of understanding comes from association with those with a proven track record in the area of interest. When it comes to blindness, no one understands it better than we do. When it comes to overcoming blindness, no one does it better than we do. When it comes to setting an example for future generations for achieving their goals and dreams, no one creates an example better than we do. We, therefore, are the response to fear. Our vision, our passion, ourselves: we are the cure, but we must be attuned to the problem. We must understand that surely those outside of our ranks and many within our ranks still carry the fears fostered by sometimes well-meaning, but unknowing people--fears fostered by people influenced by their own fears, a vicious and perpetual cycle that we in the National Federation of the Blind work hard to break every day. It is not a question of whether we will have to help others deal with their fears; it is just a question of who and when. Probably someone did the same for each of us in the past, perhaps on multiple occasions. Fear is not something to be ashamed of; it is something to be recognized and addressed. When the car honks, fear can protect us. When we let fear of stepping out and being all that we can be rule our destinies, then fear hurts us.
I have been privileged to be a part of and to work in this organization for many years. God willing, I will continue for many more to come. I do so because I believe that we are the best at what we do and that no one has the ability to help more blind people in a more complete way than we do. This organization helped me to understand myself more than I did before I came to it, and I am certainly not the only one to make that claim. As we move forward in our quests for security, equality, and opportunity, let us bear in mind that part of our job is to make the fear factor a null factor.

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You gain strength, experience, and confidence by every experience where you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing you cannot do." Andrew Carnegie once said, “If you want to conquer fear, don't sit at home and think about it. Go out and get busy." And, as quoted from Wordsworth:

What are fears but voices airy?
Whispering harm where harm is not.
And deluding the unwary
Till the fatal bolt is shot.

It was true during times of great crisis for our country; it was true for my client who fought in Vietnam. It is true for each of us here today. Let us decide once and for all to make the fear factor go away.

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