The upside of fear

I’ve heard many times that the opposite of love is not hatred, as you might expect, but fear. The implication, of course, is that love is good and fear is bad. But I recently read something that has me thinking. Fear is what keeps us alive.

We’re born with a fierce survival instinct, and all of us have felt it first-hand. Near-misses, such as swerving to avoid a collision with a cement truck, trigger a surge of adrenaline that prepares us to fight or flee. Our initial feeling is fear, which is followed (almost immediately) by a hormonal surge that equips us to do something about it.

If it weren’t for our built-in fear of death, we’d step out of our lives at the first sign of discomfort and request a cosmic do-over. Fear keeps us on the planet.

The fear of death can erode, however, and when it does, we have a safety net. Holocaust survivors, prisoners of war, and victims of torture have survived unspeakable suffering because of the love and responsibility they felt for their families.

Usually, we are kept alive by two layers of emotions: fear of
death and the love and responsibility we feel for our families

If we lose our fear of death, feelings of love and
responsibility keep us fighting for survival

When you have lived a full life and come toward the end of your years, the fear of death naturally erodes. Knowing that your loved ones can care for themselves gives you peace of mind, and you can allow yourself to relax your grip on life. When my grandfather was in his late eighties, he said, “I just want to go home.” We adored him and were very sad when he died at 89, but we knew it was what he wanted.

A well-lived life isn’t the only thing that causes people to relax their grip, however. Sometimes, depression and mental anguish become so great that they extinguish all emotions, including the fear of death and feelings of love and responsibility. This causes a total eclipse, which can lead people to put a permanent end to their own suffering.

Profound mental anguish can snuff out the feelings that usually keep us alive

A year ago day today, my friend Marc died of a total eclipse. I’ve thought a lot about how and why his safety net eroded. Obviously, Marc lost his fear of death. But what about the love and responsibility he felt for his wife and twin 11-year-old sons?

Clearly, all of Marc’s emotional systems failed. Marc thought he was ending his own suffering when he pulled the trigger. He didn’t realize that his suffering would increase exponentially as it passed to the wife, children, parents, siblings, friends, and colleagues who would, on some level, be grappling with his death for the rest of their lives.

I alternate between feelings of compassion and empathy (because of the despair that Marc died of) and anger (because of the pain that he forced the rest of us to live with). On some level, I guess I also feel a little envy. Marc’s pain is gone. Mine will remain for a long, long time.


Marc Alan Olson

September 15, 1965~September 21, 2007

Born in Tacoma, Marc graduated from University of Puget Sound with a degree in Physics in 1987. While there, he and his dear friend, Scott Andrews founded Passages, the outdoor orientation program for freshmen. Marc also served on the UPS Board of Trustees. He worked as a software engineer at Microsoft since 1989. Marc lived his life to the fullest with energy and commitment, admired by all who knew him. He was a devoted and loving husband, father and friend who had many passions in life including learning, reading, cooking, flying, photography, hiking, boating, skiing and anything that immersed him in the great outdoors. With his wife and kids, Marc loved nothing more than hosting friends and family at their “little bit of paradise” on Stuart Island, enjoying fine food and wine, fellowship and spectacular sunsets. Marc will be remembered by his many friends for his brilliant mind, generous spirit and insatiable appetite for life. Marc is survived by his parents, Judy and Terry Olson, wife, Jean, twin sons, Alex and Jake, brother, Craig, sister, Marce and their families. A Memorial Service to celebrate Marc’s Life will be held on Thursday, Sept. 27th, 1:00 p.m. at University Presbyterian Church, 4540 15th Ave NE, Seattle. All are welcome. In lieu of flowers, remembrances may be made to a college fund that will be established for Alex and Jake.

Why I trust my heart

My friend Marc committed suicide last September, leaving behind twin 11-year-old sons. I hated him for that, and yet felt compassion for the anquish that led him to end his own life. As I sat there at his memorial service, looking at the backs of his sons’ heads, I thought, how do you explain this to children?

I rememberd a seminar that I attended some time ago. One of the participants told the speaker that she was afraid that her mother, who suffered from depression, would commit suicide. The speaker said, “Every death is suicide.”

I’ve been thinking about that statement ever since. What the speaker meant was that we all have far more control over the circumstances of our lives and deaths than we realize. Of course, that presupposes several things–namely that:

  • Our souls/spirits are eternal
  • We have a “higher self” (Creator, Source, God, Guardian angel, Guide–what you call it doesn’t matter)
  • We came into this world with an agenda
  • We are have the power to be, do, or have whatever we want

UnsureEven though these things are all part of my belief system, the “every death is suicide” statement came as a surprise to me. I’ve lost quite a few people that I cared about. Too many of them were young and three died at their own hands. If all their deaths were “suicides” it means that none of their deaths were accidental, tragic, or premature. None of them were victims, because the way they died was part of the agenda they set before they were born.

I have found comfort in that.

The story I’m writing for Marc’s sons illustrates what I have come to believe–namely that emotions are the way we receive guidance from our higher selves. The way it works is extremely simple: When we feel good, we’re on the right track and when we don’t feel good we’re not. That is why I trust my heart. And that is why I call emotions the GPS for life’s journey.

The illustration, by Kris Wiltse, is from the “Unsure” card, which is part of the Mixed Emotions card deck.