I'm not afraid of death. I just don't want to be there when it happens.
It is unusual to commence one of these pieces in my continuing series of anti-bucket-list items, 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die, with a quote. It was chosen because it perfectly encapsulates my response to the irritating proposal, found on the Personal Excellence website that one should
Conquer your biggest fear.
At first glance this sounds perfectly in tune with the self-improvement, you too can be a star, will-power is all you need, sentiments of our consumer-centred age. Afraid of something? Ridiculous! Conquer it. Go on, conquer it. Get it well and truly conquered.
The reason why I will not be attempting to conquer my biggest fear (or fears) is that they are genuinely frightening and genuinely possible and that they cannot be "conquered". These include:
- The risk of the Earth being struck by an asteroid or comet.
- The risk of a nearby (in cosmic terms) supernova flooding us with deadly gamma-ray radiation.
- The impact of climate change.
- The continuing violence of extremists towards anyone remotely different from them.
- The chance of developing a crippling or terminal disease, or having a devastating accident; worse still, having that happen to Mrs C.
Nobody "conquers" concerns about such events of such fundamental importance and to which we have no defence. I conclude that, for this to be a meaningful bucket-list objective, and therefore one I can cheerfully scorn to do, it must not really be our "biggest" fear but our most immediately pressing and yet utterly trivial fears that are to be vanquished.
There are plenty of irrational fears - stepping on cracks in the pavement, walking under ladders, encountering the wrong number of animals or birds - and no doubt some can be so heightened that sufferers may be unable to leave their homes or lead any form of normal life. And there are fears well-founded in our animal brains - fear of the dark, of snakes or spiders, of strangers - that we may wish to be subjugate. Although we know that, in reality, they are not going to hurt us, you cannot utterly rule out that they might.
These fears, however, are too generic, too ordinary. Let us focus on the really silly fears, the ones that we can safely try to conquer, if we could care less about doing so. Fears along the following lines:
- Reaching for the last cheese cracker in the packet and finding it broken
- Running out of change at the cafe and having to humbly submit a £50 note to pay for a £1.30 coffee.
- Dropping a sweet down the back of my seat in the car and - no matter how hard I run my fingers into the cracks and underneath - not finding it, and knowing that when I finally do it will be a half-melted sticky lump.
- Completely forgetting my neighbour's name just as I encounter them in the road and they greet me by my name.
- Racing up the stairs to catch a train, just missing it and then realising that a problem down the line means there will be no more for at least an hour.
- Hearing an odd noise at night, knowing that the house is locked up and it's bound to be just the radiators cooling - or is it?
These are the very stuff of life, the catalysts that get our adrenaline pumping and our instincts heightened, without in any way imperilling us. The sheer pleasure of actually catching that train, or finding that sweet, of realising that the odd sound was actually Mrs C turning over in bed - without the fear in the first place there would not be the sense of calm and serenity that accompanies a threat successfully averted.
Only someone blind to the world would wish to "conquer" such apprehensions. If we did so, then many of life's smaller pleasures would vanish. Why would we care so much about, say, the sports team that we support winning a game, if we did not also dread the prospect of defeat? Thus I regard it as ludicrous to try to ignore the real and major fears that we all have and suffocating to wave away the little ones that make up the warp and weft of everyday life. As to the everyday fear that this column will one day cease to be supported by the generous embrace of Google - I can only hope and pray that you, my loyal readers, will stand by me in that day of disaster.
[The Keep the Ramblings Going At All Costs Fund is open for donations at the usual address. Thanks. Ed]