This post was originally written by Juhea Kim and appeared on Peaceful Dumpling, a lifestyle website dedicated to making the world a better place through embracing a sustainable, compassionate, and plant-based lifestyle. I decided to share this here because I think a lot of us are feeling fear about the state of our world, and I thought this was a helpful perspective on when that can be used as a useful tool.
As a trilingual, I’ve long been fascinated about how different languages shape our psyche in distinct ways. One thing I’ve noticed about English, for example, is its emphasis on fear. If something isn’t going right, we say “I’m afraid…” even though the actual emotion might not be at the level of “fear.” What may be equated to regret or apology in other languages is often pinned to fear in English.
And then there are all the phrases about overcoming your fears.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing every day that scares you”—that most famous and the most American of anti-fear rhetoric. What she meant was to go bravely beyond your self-imposed limits, but what if there is something to be said for fear—and for not chasing it away by brute force of will?
Fear has been very useful to human evolution because it helped us avoid getting eaten by predators and evading elemental danger. But in addition to helping us survive, fear is also directly related to an important human trait: compassion.
Research by Abigail Marsh, a psychologist at Georgetown University and the author of The Fear Factor, shows that psychopaths (people who lack a sense of moral right and wrong, and show no empathy for other beings) lack an amygdala response to fearful stimuli. In short, they don’t experience fear—and by not knowing fear, they also don’t understand others’ fear or suffering.
What’s even more interesting is this: on the opposite end of the compassion spectrum, altruists’ brains are unusually responsive to fearful stimuli. The amygdala of people who are most willing to help others and behave with empathy lights up more against what they view as undesirable or dangerous situations—and they feel fear more intensely, too. (This makes sense since compassion, or the ability to help others in the community, is also an evolutionary advantage.)
Learning this was a moment of vindication for me. Many people have told me that I seem fearless—and on the outside, I do look the part. I absolutely love traveling alone. I’ve gone hiking solo in Norway and the French Alps. I’m a great public speaker. I do things like quitting a job and moving to another country.