This Halloween we’re talking about our fears

On Tuesday, poll workers will brave the cold autumn daybreak, set up their folding tables and chairs, and prepare to facilitate the democratic process. Many of us, though not nearly enough, will cast our ballots in the hard-fought, and not entirely won, custom of choosing the candidates and issues we believe matter to us. We’re casting our ballot for what we want, but we’re also casting our vote against what we don’t want—against what makes us fearful.

Fear is something we all experience. It is among the few innate emotions humans have. The “fear center” of our brains is called the amygdala, and it supports survival because when we experience fear, our reptilian brain (aka our amygdala) signals to us that we should fight, flee, or freeze. Voting is one way we fight back against the things that scare us.

Since September, we’ve been on the road hearing from CoreAlign alum and new SM+I collaborators about what they fear. They’re afraid of rising conservatism, of power dynamics between philanthropists and their grantees, and of losing sight of the big picture in favor of small, incremental wins. I’m afraid of those things, too.

We fear many of the same things, and sometimes we’re afraid of the opposite things. Some of the folks we talked to are afraid that we are losing momentum and on the precipice of burnout as a movement cohort, and others fear that we are not doing nearly as much as we could. Some people believe we are over-reliant on technology, and others don’t think we have access to enough of it. A lot of people fear loss: loss of opportunity, time, and political power.

Our fears are shaped by the people around us; by what we see, hear, and read; and by our experiences. If I burn my hand on the stove, I’ll be afraid to get close to the stove again. This election season’s political commercials and radio ads using language like “illegal aliens” incites fear of immigrants and refugees. When we see our family members and friends stereotype people because of how they look and where they’re from, that stokes fear too. And sometimes we’re afraid because we’re losing control and things feel unpredictable—a pervasive fear often used to justify why so many white people voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

Fear intersects with our lives all the time. And when we fear things, we feel it in our body, too. We experience fear in our vagus nerve, which psychologist and racialized trauma expert Resmaa Menakem calls “the soul nerve”—this is where we feel hope, dread, fear, empathy, anxiety, disgust, and despair. This nerve interfaces with parasympathetic (relating to the part of the automatic nervous system that counterbalances the action of the sympathetic nerves)  control of the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. “It’s the largest organ in your body’s autonomic nervous system which regulates all of your body’s basic functions,” Menakem writes in his book, My Grandmother’s Hands.

Whether our fear is real or perceived, it motivates us. Right now, less than a week before the midterm elections, there is a lot of talk about fear. On Monday, President Trump sent more than 5,200 active-duty troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to escalate already-rising fear of the Latin American men, women, and children fleeing terror in their homelands in search of a better, safer life. Those families are also fearful: fearful of what will happen to their children if they stay and undoubtedly afraid of the dangerous trek toward a hostile country. Fear is everywhere, and we can use it to make things better or worse; because although fear is innate, we have control over how we wield it.

The first step is recognizing fear when you feel it. Recognizing our fear is challenging because the reptilian brain cannot distinguish between real and perceived danger. This makes moving outside our comfort zone scary. Harnessing our fear for good requires us to question what we think we know about the world around us and to ask ourselves, “What kind of fear is this—real or perceived?” Yes, this adds one more step to our already complicated lives, and it can also help us all make more rational decisions about how we engage with one another and the systems to which we are all bound, such as democracy.  

As adults, we’re not provided with many spaces to talk about what we’re afraid of, but since fear is innate and something we all experience, we knew it was important to ask people to give us specific answers to the question, “What do you fear?” on our six-city innovation pop-up listening tour. As we finish up our rounds, we are documenting our fears so we can have an honest discussion of which fears are real and which are perceived, and so we can find innovative and mutually beneficial ways to confront them.

Happy Halloween. Vote if you can.