Fear-a sign that we are alive

Roberta Bacic

When I was asked to write about this topic-- one which had been so crucial in resisting the dictatorship in Chile--I didn't think it would be difficult to share part of the experience: of living with fear and to talk about how we managed it at personal and social level. But it has not been easy at all. My experience of fear has been re-awoken and has had to be dealt with again.

The fact that Pinochet was in London, that he was sent back to Chile to live a life in impunity instead of returning to face trial, has triggered internal processes and stimulated a need to evaluate the way we dealt with fear during the dictatorship. My thoughts have been on how I/we would face it now. I will try to share with you that which remains constant.

Fear is an EMOTION that works as a survival instinct. It lets us know that we are in DANGER. Because of this, we have to look into it, face our fears and deal with them. If we deal with fear adequately it can become a very empowering experience, but if we do not succeed it can disempower us. We cannot expect that we will overcome fear, nor that we will defeat it. But we can hope to develop the ability not to panic, to live with our fear and to use it constructively in order to take the steps necessary to move towards our goals or targets. In my case it was to stop the dictatorship and struggle towards a more just society.

When sharing this experience with the human rights and action groups I have been involved with, I used to recall a passage from a story that helps us understand what I have tried to express in language
"And the boy's knees trembled as he felt he was lost in the forest. So, he said to himself in loud voice:
Get away fear!,
and as his legs kept trembling he shouted:
Get away fear! Leave me!
And then the legs continued trembling, but only because it was cold.

(Taken from: La Piedra Arde, by Eduardo Galeano. Graficas Ortega, S.A. Salamanca. Spain. 1983.)

In situations where we are pushed to our limits, and when we perceive risk, fear is liable to surface in response, and we have to face it. What kind of situations am I referring to? Situations in which we live with insecurity and anguish which may merge, as they did during dictatorship in my country, or in war situations: fear of being arrested, fear of being denounced, fear of being tortured, fear of being caught in an illegal meeting, fear of being betrayed, etc. Fear can express itself either as a response to the unknown (consequences of arrest) as well as what is known (a concrete phone threat).

Fear: its components and its consequences.

Fear, as a mechanism, can act to prompt us into protecting ourselves or others, or as an inhibition. So, fear is not necessarily negative. It acts as a defence mechanism which allows us to take precautions when dealing with dangerous or threatening situations, but it can also push us towards: paralysis, obsession, and guilt feelings.

  • It creates a general state of alertness, a sensation that we must always be on edge, that we are under stress because of what might happen.
  • It makes us feel that we are vulnerable, that we are unprotected, that we can be harmed.
  • We might feel impotent. We can feel unable to act in the face of difficult circumstances, or that what happens to us does not depend on our actions, and is out of our control.
  • We can even experience an altered sense of reality. We might lose sense of where fear really is, or if it even exists; it might appear diffuse and we might even be unable to perceive what is happening in or around us.
  • Facing fear during extreme situations seems the best way to deal with it. Sharing different experiences of fear and methods of dealing with it, as part of a group, proved to be very helpful for us. These are some of the resources that we have found helpful:.
  • Have an active attitude in the face of fear. If we do nothing to face the anguish it creates, it will increase and most probably consume our energy when we try to control it. There seem to exist two different ways to face anguish. One is to do it directly, that means get into the situations that provoke it. If we can not eliminate it, then we might do something about it, like taking precautions, etc. The other is to face the consequences, trying to keep control over situations and avoiding impulsive behaviours. For example if we have to face the fact that the police might arrest us during a demonstration, we can try to control fear by deciding in advance what our behaviour will be when confronted by police officers. If it does not work, then we can try to imagine and prepare for what we could do if we are tortured after having been arrested.
  • Working out our fears. That means dealing with them in different ways and following different steps:
    1. Acknowledge the fear. That means that one is aware that one fears, and we are be able to express what we feel and think about it.
    2. Analyse the fear, in order to evaluate risks and implications.
    3. Socialise them in order to share experiences and overcome the poor image we can have of ourselves for being afraid.
    4. Deconstruct the fear into its components. An example would be to decide in a group how to act if the police arrest some but not all of the participants of a protest, or how to cope with violence directed at activists.
    Avoiding rigid positions in front of fear. Very often we tend to deny it exists, or we try to hide it and sometimes we act as if it doesn't exist. None of these options helps us much to either move forward in our actions, or to deal with the existence of fear.
  • Sharing the feelings and emotions which arise from fear would really help us to understand the deep commitment we have to our struggles, as well as the motivations individuals have to join us.
  • Last, but not least is the need of promoting solidarity. The feeling of being part of a group, of living and surviving in extreme situations, not in isolation but as a member of a group or body, is a fundamental resource in our struggle. We feel co-responsible for the progress we make, and share our failures.
Lastly I'd like to add that we used to run workshops on this which proved to be incredibly helpful. A key resource has been the book: Salud mental: La comunidad como apoyo, which was written by Carlos Martin Beristain and Francesc Riera on their experience of working in El Salvador and Guatemala under immense repression.
Roberta Bacic is a War Resisters' International staff member.