When I was about six years old, I began to have a recurrent nightmare about an alligator chasing me. It was a simple, straight-forward dream and the theme was always the same. I would run in absolute terror as fast as my little legs would take me, all the while hearing the beast’s jaws snapping just inches from my heels, knowing it was just about to get me. I always managed to stay just ahead of it but my fear was intense and it lingered long after I awakened.
I had the nightmare regularly for several years. Then, one night while having the dream something shifted. I was running as usual, but this time there was anger attached to my terror. I was finally becoming weary of all the running and the fear. I’d had enough. Although I was afraid, I suddenly stopped running and turned around to face my monster. To my utter surprise, instead of seeing the dreaded giant alligator, I saw a ridiculously tiny, battered-looking, brown alligator about the size of a cat. The alligator’s skin was dry and cracked and stiff-looking. As I examined it more closely, I saw that there was an open seam on the side of the thing’s belly and that yellow stuffing was spilling out of its gut. It wasn’t real. It was nothing but an old stuffed alligator that had been sitting on my grandparent’s buffet for years.
My anger exploded when I realized I had been running in fear of a stuffed alligator. I screamed at it “you’re nothing but a stuffed alligator; you’re not even real and I’m not afraid of you!!!”. It just stood there looking at me with its sad little brown glass eyes, defeated, old and stiff. I had finally broken through the illusion and seen the “beast” for what it truly was. I never had that nightmare again.
We humans have the ability not only to store and retrieve memories, but also to use our minds to imagine future events. But, according to two American psychologists – Timothy D. Wilson and Daniel T. Gilbert (Gilbert of Stumbling on Happiness fame), our ability to imagine the future is skewed. It is an imperfect and biased system that tends to project current fears, anxieties and irrational thought onto future events, creating a bias that ignores the potential for evolving and changing circumstances and feelings. We can plan future events and prepare for them in several practical ways, but our accurate emotional response to those future events remains out of conscious reach. We simply cannot predict future feelings with any amount of precision.
In addition, according to the study, we mostly over-estimate the impact of an event on our emotions and feelings. As a result, we fear making changes, and decisions become difficult if not impossible to make as we envision the dire consequences awaiting us down the road. We imagine that a negative event will leave us miserable forever, that we will never overcome it, that we will suffer endlessly, and that we will be forever unhappy. Wilson and Gilbert disagree, providing overwhelming evidence that proves otherwise.
There is little doubt that fear is the biggest barrier we face in moving ahead in life. Having said that, there is a place for genuine fear; it alerts us and protects us from harm. Although it is unlikely that any of us will be chased by alligators, if you happen to be taking a moonlit walk down by the bayou, or having a swim in the Florida Everglades, a healthy dose of rational fear might be in order!
It was many years before I realized there was a lesson in that dream of mine. I was too young at the time to understand that fear is an illusion, mostly borne out of irrational thought. That what we fear most is fear itself. And that the only way to overcome it is to look at it squarely in the face and stare it down.