‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’

Ever since eighth-grade history class, when I first encountered those famous words by FDR, I’ve wondered about their meaning. How could you fear fear? I just didn’t make sense to me.

FDR fireside chat

FDR tried to calm a jittery nation in his first inaugural address and subsequent fireside chats. Image from kirbymuseum.org.

Then along comes life—a few hard knocks, some doubts and setbacks—and pretty soon I’m seeing that FDR was right. If you’re not careful, fear can stop you dead in your tracks.

At one time in our evolution, fear was of great benefit in ensuring our survival. I suppose today it still is. The fear of heights keeps us from jumping off tall buildings, and the fear of death keeps us from doing really stupid things. There are myriad smaller fears like the fear of looking silly in public, the fear of failing a test or choking in a game. Some of our fears have vanity at their root; others push us to make positive changes in our lives.

But fear itself, when it isn’t harnessed for good, when it smothers our self-confidence and extinguishes our desire to excel, when it stops us from doing what we know is right, even bettering the world—now that is fear that should be feared. That kind of fear needs to be eradicated like a disease so it can no longer infect us.

Anyone who has tried to better his situation, make a career change or start a new business knows about fear. Like a bad penny, fear keeps turning up. It’s fear that convinces you that you will fail. “You’re not smart enough or talented enough,” fear says. “Stop wasting your time, you’ll never get that job or win that contract.”

Fear begets fear, and pretty soon you don’t think you can do anything except what you’ve always done, and that’s not acceptable either because what you’re doing now is the very thing you want to change. It becomes a vicious cycle unless you can find the strength to change your attitude.

Overcoming fear has become a cottage industry with self-help books, life coaches, videos and motivational speakers. It does seem that we humans have a need to be constantly reassured that we are okay and with a little nudging we can succeed. Or wildly succeed, if you believe some of the books out there.

One book that’s been around for decades is Napoleon Hill’s 1937 classic, “Think and Grow Rich.” I want to thank my friend Nate Felton for convincing me to finally sit down and read it. Hill is considered one of the progenitors of self-help, perhaps the original self-help guru.

It won’t surprise you that Hill devotes the final chapter of his book to “outwitting the six ghosts of fear.” Typical of Hill’s writing, he breaks fear down into the basic types of fear we should strive to overcome. In his inimitable style, Hill discusses how the “unholy trio” of fear, indecision and doubt work together to sabotage our dreams and aspirations. “Where one is found,” he says, “the other two are close at hand.” “INDECISION is the seedling of FEAR,” and “indecision crystallizes into DOUBT,” he writes. “[T]he two blend and become FEAR.”

The six basic fears are timeless and include:

  1. Fear of poverty
  2. Fear of criticism
  3. Fear of ill health
  4. Fear of loss of love of someone
  5. Fear of old age
  6. Fear of death

How many of these can you identify with? Why not vow to eradicate them from your life? You have nothing to fear…but fear itself.

P.S. Here’s an excerpt from Hill’s chapter on fear. This will give you a taste of his writing style, which is absolutely marvelous:

This fear [of poverty] paralyzes the faculty of reason, destroys the faculty of imagination, kills off self-reliance, undermines enthusiasm, discourages initiative, leads to uncertainty of purpose, encourages procrastination, wipes out enthusiasm and makes self-control an impossibility. It takes the charm from one’s personality, destroys the possibility of accurate thinking, diverts concentration of effort, it masters persistence, turns the will-power into nothingness, destroys ambition, beclouds the memory and invites failure in every conceivable form; it kills love and assassinates the finer emotions of the heart, discourages friendship and invites disaster in a hundred forms, leads to sleeplessness, misery and unhappiness–and all this despite the obvious truth that we live in a world of over-abundance of everything the heart could desire, with nothing standing between us and our desires, excepting lack of a definite purpose.

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2 Responses to ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’

  1. Carolyn Turner says:

    Jay, you have such a knack for writing. We enjoy your posts. – Carolyn and Dick

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