After yesterday’s post a couple people asked me why I was so dismissive of the commenter’s concern for my safety. Why, they asked, was I brushing off someone with perfectly legitimate safety concerns?
I apologize if I came across as dismissive, and I apologize if I gave the impression I thought his concerns were not legitimate. Being dismissive about safety concerns is not at all what I intended.
Actually, I understand his concerns quite well. I have them myself. I wrestle with them every day. After all, the walk I am about to undertake does not involve someone else’s safety. It involves my own. Many days, especially now as the walk draws close, I am beside myself with fear and anxiety.
Why then am I going to do the walk if I am afraid of it?
Because more often than not, fear is a poor indicator of danger.
Let me diverge for a moment to define my terms here: danger and fear are not the same thing. Danger is external. It doesn’t care what we think. It can be measured with statistics (X% of skydivers are killed in accidents each year). Fear is internal. It is an emotion. It reminds us what the worst-case scenarios look like, and how we feel about them (skydiving accidents are gruesome, I don’t want to be in one).
Here’s an example of fear versus danger lifted from my trip preparations:
When I started researching this trip I actually began by asking what it would take to walk across Iran.
At that time in the US, Iran was in the news for detaining 3 American hikers who strayed across the border. So when I would mention I was looking into walking across Iran, 4 out of 5 people would bring up that hiker issue and start fearing for my life.
But at the same time I was reading a book written by a Scotsman who in the early 2000s walked across Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. I was also learning about an Australian who walked across Iran at the very same time those American hikers were in prison. I also watched a Rick Steves special on traveling in Iran. For those of you not familiar with Rick Steves, he is one of the most popular travel writers around. His specialty is traveling in Europe — for decades he has been writing about it, speaking about it, and leading tours around the Continent. For him to diverge from his well-worn path of teaching Americans how to travel through one of the most familiar parts of the world to teaching Americans how to travel through Iran is to send a pretty loud signal that “hey, this place isn’t all that bad.”
So I looked into it further. I learned that about 1,000 American tourists travel to Iran each year. They have nice vacations. They don’t get arrested.
If 1,000 American tourists travel to Iran every year and don’t get arrested, why do we give the experience of 3 of them so much influence over our opinions? In the year those three hikers were arrested, they represented three-tenths of one percent of American tourists in Iran. The experience of the other 99.7% of American tourists in Iran suggests our opinion should actually be, “Iran is a safe country to travel to.”
Giving more weight to the experiences of 3 people than to the experiences of 1,000 people is kind of a screwed-up way to evaluate our surroundings.
So why do we evaluate them that way?
My take on it is that fear is a powerful emotion. It easily overwhelms rational analysis of danger. There are plenty of things we know about the world around us, knowledge that if we didn’t let our fears override it, would guide us to quite different decisions.
Here’s an example of how we use knowledge to overcome our fears every day:
We all walk down the street. There are cars that can hit us in the intersections, and there are bad people who can beat us up hiding in the alleys. We could be maimed or killed just walking down the street. And yet we walk down the street all the time. I know this from personal experience — I have been hit by a car, and I have been beaten up. But I still walk down the street pretty much every day, because I know that on any given day, the chances of being hit by a car, or beaten up, are actually quite small.
I suspect it is rarely a lack of information that causes us to let fear take over and drive important life decisions. We let fear drive important life decisions because it is so powerful. When its siren starts wailing in our heads, the noise is so deafening that it easily overwhelms rational thought.
Fear’s ability to overwhelm rational thought is built into our human nature. I doubt that anyone ever has, or ever will, find a way to make his fear operate according to rational rules. “Rational fear” is an oxymoron.
But just because fear is so powerful an emotion doesn’t mean we need to be held captive by it. The more we train ourselves to disconnect our fears from our decision-making, the more of the world we are free to experience.
I am not advocating that we ignore considerations of danger. I am advocating that we be very suspicious of fear.
Back to the walk: I am not dismissive or cavalier about my own safety. I have, however, spent over a decade learning to let my analysis of danger, not my fear, drive my decisions about how I move around the world. Ten years ago I would never have considered doing something like this walk. Now it seems like the most natural thing in the world.
Yes, it is entirely possible that someone will kill me on the side of the road during the walk. It is also highly unlikely that someone will do so. It is up to me to decide which of those two ways of thinking I am going to let drive my decision-making.