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Challenging Fear (afternoon commencement address)

  • Date: 08/15/2009
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Throughout life, we continuously are confronted by choices - some relatively simple, others more complex and serious.  And the choices we make, and how we make them, will determine the course and the quality of our lives.

    It is an exciting set of options, even if they seem daunting at times.  And each always comes with built-in risks and opportunities that are sometimes difficult to foresee or, perhaps, to understand.  Still, we take risks every time that we make a choice.

    Paradoxically, the prospect of choice or of going after opportunities always seems to raise a sense of excitement and, simultaneously, a sense of risk.  

    For some, however, any sense of risk becomes a sense of fear or anxiety.  But remember that risk and anxiety are two quite different conditions, and a simple story will illustrate the point:

    The Surgeon General tells us that cigarettes kill more than 150,000 Americans each year, and automobiles on our highways kill more than 50,000 people per year.  But nobody, it seems, is afraid of cigarettes, nor of automobiles.

    However, according to the Deputy Director of the National Institutes of Health, everyone is afraid of sharks.

    The Navy says that there are about 50 shark attacks worldwide each year.  The National Bureau of Health Statistics doesn't even keep a record of shark attacks because there are so few. (They know how many people are killed by bee stings, but not shark bites.)

    But, the fact is that if you went to a crowded beach and shouted "shark," everyone would race out of the water, jump into a car, light up a cigarette, and drive home!

    How nice it would be if we could put risk and anxiety into perspective, and move to better distinguish the "sharks" in our midst, because where reason and calm prevail, there is always optimism and much that can be accomplished for the common good.

    Anxiety keeps us from accurately assessing risks, and quite often leads to "analysis paralysis," a condition whereby a problem or opportunity is analyzed incessantly without action, or is simply ignored.

    In some cases, anxiety - or fear - becomes so prevalent that it dominates.  At that stage, anxiety - fear - becomes a phobia.

    Phobia comes from the Greek "phobos" which means a sense of fear or morbid fear. 1

    According to health experts, some of the most common fears include: bugs, mice, snakes and bats; heights; water; storms; tunnels and bridges; closed spaces; and, of course, public speaking, which some call "public sweating." 2

    The fear of flying is among the more common phobias, and if you suffer from this anxiety, you share it with Muhammad Ali, Cher, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Bob Thornton and the late president Ronald Reagan. 3

    You cat lovers will be interested in knowing that felines struck fear in the hearts of many powerful world leaders, including Napoleon Bonaparte, King Henry III of France, Augustus Caesar, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Benito Mussolini. 4

    Some phobias have ironies built into them.

    Anne Rice, a best-selling author of many vampire novels, fears the dark. 5

    Steven Spielberg is afraid of insects. 6

    And the famous Houdini, who performed incredible feats, such as escaping from locked safes, was afraid of tight spaces, which perhaps explains why he became so good at getting out of them. 7

    The medical community has been able to label just about every phobia imaginable.  If you do have a morbid fear of sharks, for example, you suffer from "Selachophobia." 8

    Arachibutyrophia is the fear of getting peanut butter stuck on the roof of your mouth; Gnosiophobia is the fear of knowledge, which is not something you suffer from; and Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia is the fear of long words. 9

    What differentiates phobias from normal fear is that the former create a more irrational and intense response.  Not only can they undermine your health, they can force you to delay or avoid taking those risks that you should because you may feel they would cause significant distress.  

    But even a little bit of anxiety can influence how we act or what choices we make.  Sometimes, anxiety even allows us to be manipulated inappropriately.

    There is a market that makes money by purveying a "Chicken Little" mentality, which predicts calamity at every turn.  These doomsayers capitalize on hype, and whether intentional or not, plant seeds of fear that inaccurately depict would-be risks as immediate danger.

    For example, according to more than one-million Web pages on the Internet, the apocalypse is coming in the year 2012.  Not based on scientific fact, this phenomenon purportedly will cause numerous changes to our planet, including one suggestion that the Earth will turn upside down and the sun will then rise in the west and set in the east. 10 

    Please note that this may or may not be the same apocalypse that was supposed to beset us at the beginning of the millennium when all of the world's computers were to crash and immediately send our civilization back to the Stone Age.

    The apocalypse not withstanding, we were told 30 years ago that global cooling was inevitable, not global warming, and we were to prepare ourselves for the next ice age.

    But that didn't last long, because in the 1980s we were told that many Americans might not get to experience the ice age, because of imminent shortages of food and non-renewable resources. 

    And while this sky-is-falling mentality can be profitable, the purveyors' credibility is best exemplified by Greg Easterbrook's Law of Doomsaying, which states: "Predict catastrophe no sooner than 5 years hence but no later than 10 years away - soon enough to terrify, but distant enough that people will forget if you are wrong." 11

    Even without such manipulation, we still may have difficulty differentiating between real and perceived risks, because we all fear what we don't understand or are unable to calculate, even when the facts of the matter don't support our emotional response. 

    For example, we might fear small amounts of manmade radiation from medical equipment, yet be willing to spend countless hours at the beach, soaking up larger doses of harmful UV rays from the sun.

    Perceived or not, everything in life contains some element of risk, even if it is secondary to the original concern. 

    Extreme sports present situations in which skill is delicately balanced against real dangers.  Let's take free climbing, for example.  For those not familiar with the sport, it is a type of rock climbing without any support ropes; entirely on your fingertips and toes.

    As you can well imagine, the hold that the climber has on a small crevice can easily be lost, but skilled climbers know the degree of risk that their skill is likely to allow in any particular moment.  "...but lightning also strikes (and as a Wall Street Journal commentary points out) ...Most people exist so swaddled against danger, measuring out their lives with coffee spoons, that those who reckon by a different calculation of risk and reward appear insane (to them).  Yet to survive a perilous situation is to love life more than the average person can imagine." 12

    Indeed, we are creatures who thrive on challenge and on opportunity, who value freedom and self-determination, who take pleasure in accomplishment.

    That is where your education comes into play.  You have expanded what you know, you have learned how to investigate and evaluate and, hopefully, you have gained confidence in yourself and in your ability to differentiate risk and anxiety. 

    As you move forward in your careers, you will need to take risks and occasionally challenge the normal fears that stand in the way of your personal and professional growth - fears of failure, of rejection or of swimming with the sharks.    

    Hopefully, armed with the knowledge and insight your University has given you, along with the self-confidence you've increasingly developed, you now are able to confront your fears and know that the path to fulfillment often lies outside of your comfort zone.     

    You have gained the knowledge necessary to help separate fact from fiction - risk from anxiety.  So, make informed decisions and dare to take the calculated risks that will enhance the course and the quality of your lives.

    Risks always come with a clear guarantee of knowing that, win or lose, you have gained something, simply because you tried.

    And if you don't try; if you don't ask, the answer is always NO.

    So, dream big...do great things...and live courageously.  

    * * *


    1. Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Random House, 1996
    2. Van Dusen, Allison, "Our Most Common Fears," Forbes magazine, December 12, 2006
    3. Zagata, Darlene, "Famous Phobias," Associated Content, www.associatedcontent,com
    4. Zagata, Ibid
    5. Zagata, Ibid
    6. Zagata, Ibid
    7. Zagata, Ibid
    8.  "The Phobia List," www.phobialist.com
    9. Phobia List, Ibid
    10. Brill, Richard (Professor of Science, Honolulu Community College), Star Bulletin newspaper, Honolulu, Hawaii, February 15, 2009
    11. Will, George F., "Dark Green Doomsayers," The Washington Post, February 15, 2009
    12. Ybarra, Michael J., "Extreme Sports: Climbing Alone, Risking It All," The Wall Street Journal, August 11, 2009
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