I am staring at the yellow stain and the thin long crack on the ceiling with my hands clenched in fists. I am feeling that in my legs, strapped down to the table, pins and needles start to flow. I try to move one of my feet, just to know I’m still in control of my body. But it feels as if heavy weights had been attached to them. I feel pinpricks now, and a numbing sensation slowly spreads from my toes up to the lower half of my body. I’m powerless to move. And this vulnerability is driving me crazy. Especially because I have no idea how I’m going to live through whatever is waiting for me in the following minutes. I feel like being pushed into a battle arena, without a shield or any weapons. I’m not prepared for this. Blunt visions appear in my imagination. In my mind, I’m in Afghanistan again. I am peering out of the window to the dreadfully quiet land, with butterflies in my stomach. I know they know about us, and I am also aware that in the silently surrounding desolate mountains there might be a missile fired at our vehicle any time. Or a freshly paved improvised bomb device could go off underneath us. But I would still choose this option, to die in an instant rather than falling captive and being tortured...being laid out on a table…unable to move, just like in this moment.
I let out a loud groan. A bead of sweat slides down my forehead, heading for my eye. A soft hand wipes it away before it can reach my eyebrow. I realize that my thoughts are carrying me away. The smell of disinfectants strike my nose, pulling me back into the reality of the bleak place where I am. I try to move my toes, but they don’t even feel numb anymore, in the place of my legs I feel nothing at all.
This is actually a good sign, I tell myself, trying to calm down. At least this way it won’t hurt. Though it’s hard for me to fool myself. Fear surreptitiously wedges its way into my thoughts, trying to take control of the wheel, digging up several-year-long feelings from the deepest pockets of my memory. Pockets that I long thought were empty. It turns out we carry our most visceral memories with us all our lives, and they resurface at the most unexpected moments from beneath the shrouds we cover them with. Trembling gradually washes over me, and fears emerge from the deepest layers of my soul. Fears I felt about situations like this: being vulnerable, being totally exposed.
In all my years spent working as a war correspondent, death was never the thought that scared me the most. I always thought that if it must come then it will, and it’ll take me somewhere good, either because there’s nothing there, or because existence continues in some other special, unimaginable form of state. The scariest scenario for me was always falling captive and being tortured. That I’ll be put in a situation like this moment — unable to move, possibly tied down on a table — and who knows what atrocities they’ll act out on me.
Most of the warzones I’ve visited have typically faced asymmetrical warfare, with no classic front lines dividing the sides trying to kill each other. That’s why we often didn’t even know whose territory we happened to be in, or what dangers lurked around the next corner. Abduction – especially the abduction of foreign journalists – was a very widespread and established practice in the territories under the control of armed rebels or terrorist groups. It happened to more than one of my correspondent friends in Libya and Afghanistan —though the luckier ones were only held captive for some time, and were tortured “only” psychologically. But there were several colleagues who was physically tortured, too. I’ve heard that some people can, at times like that, escape to an unknown corner of their minds, and basically turn off the immense physical pain from their conscious. Would I too be capable of such a thing? How great of pain and fear does one have to face to be able to do such a thing?
Of course, we don’t ponder these things in the field, we do our job—compassionate adrenaline and drive take the edge off fear and our sense of danger at those times. At least during the day. At night on the other hand...When the camera wasn’t rolling, I too felt the chilling reality of the situation in every bone of my body. When the bombs would go off at night in Beirut, when the gunfire wouldn’t end in Gaza, or when the silence was deafening in Afghanistan. Oftentimes I felt like I was standing naked in the crossfire, and that I was trying to convince myself I was safe behind transparent, paper-thin walls. I could’ve screamed from the vulnerability I felt. But I had to keep my cool, because I knew well that panic only makes a situation worse. So, over the years I developed a foolproof philosophy for my own self-assurance: “Trouble can strike anywhere.” Whether on the quiet streets of my little hometown in Hungary, or in Afghanistan. If something must happen, I can’t escape it anyway – so why not live my life doing what I want to?
Well, see, that’s what I have to think of now, too! – I urge myself on the operating table, trying to remind myself of my well-tried, fatalist philosophy. But I know I’m too late, this ship of fatalism is long gone. And I have no idea how to control the growing panic inside me, even though I’ve thought for years that I know how to handle fear like a professional. I had to learn this to be able to work and move in war zones without losing my mind. But when I went to the field, at least I was able to mentally prepare myself for those situations. Even if there was only one day or one night before or the plane ride, that was enough for me to mentally prepare myself. I would play out in my head approximately what I could count on happening, and what kinds of things I couldn’t prepare myself for. And I didn’t feel like the unknown was a problem, because I felt that when the moment will come, I will be able to weigh my options well, decide and improvise well in any given situation. Because no matter what would happen, I believe in myself that I can handle the situation, I am capable of doing it! Back then I didn’t know that this unspoken thought was the most important key, my little secret for managing fear. “I believe in myself that I will be capable of handling even the most unexpected, unfamiliar situations. I am capable.” Since I was capable of this the first, the second and the third time when I went to war zones, I will be capable of it the fourth time, too. It’s undeniable that only repetition, routine and success can solidify this feeling. But this situation, lying on an operating table was not a routine situation for me. I had no experience, and also, no time to prepare myself for the moment that – whether I liked it or not – implemented a growing fear in my heart.
“Your husband’s still not here. We have to wait,” I hear a voice from near my legs. Two doctors and their assistants in masks and rubber gloves stand above me. I see their expressions over the folding screen that’s been put in front of my face: slightly frustrated, because they’ve had to stand around scrubbed in for several minutes, and they can’t start the operation yet. Pearls of sweat develop on my forehead again.
“Calm down, Hesna, everything will be all right,” a soft voice says. The head nurse standing near my head touches my shoulder with her warm hand. Her ethereal presence feels like the only assuring thing amidst all this chaos. To express my gratitude, I try to smile at her, but her expression mirrors my own. I can see in her eyes that every sign of fear is visible on me. I breathe in deeply. I hold in my breath, and slowly release it through my mouth. Four seconds in, four seconds out. My heart is finally beating slower.
I’m certain that I wouldn’t have gotten so close to having a panic attack if I’d had time to prepare for this. But I hadn’t. In the morning, I left the house thinking I would spend that day in a studio close to the capital, where I would finish the narration for my television show and conduct the voiceover. Before that, I had to come into the hospital just for a routine check-up, and only half an hour ago I was still sitting in the quiet waiting room. Then suddenly the results of a test came in, and by the time I understood what was going on, I was being rushed into the operating room. I was unbelievably frightened, even though I’d spent the last ten years improvising in considerably more dangerous situations than this one. But we are, after all, prepared for the unexpected in a war zone. But not in our everyday life! The unfolding events struck me like a lightning bolt out of the clear blue sky. I’m afraid.
I slowly taste this phrase. I’m afraid. I’m really afraid. But so, what if I’m afraid? The question rushes through my head. It’s me who always tells people: it’s okay to be afraid. In fact, we have to be afraid! We shouldn’t try to get rid of fear – if that is our aim, we’re doomed to fail. This impossible expectation only causes more distress. We have to become familiar with fear, and make it our accomplice!
That sounds nice, I really do craft beautiful theories, I smile involuntarily. Let’s see then, if my theory works in practice, too. Calm down, I whisper to myself. And in my mind, I start to dissect the situation. What is it, exactly, that I’m most afraid of? And what is the worst that could happen? What is it that could happen differently than I expect it to? What is the most likely outcome of the situation? What would I tell someone else, if I saw them in this situation? And what is that unknown factor that’s so frightening about this whole thing?
I’ve always imagined fear as some massive, dark, sticky substance that can easily absorb us. Lots of us think about fear this way, even as children we imagine it this way, with monsters, helplessness and uncertainty attached to this emotion. I felt the same way about fear, until I started to take conscious notice of myself and of those around me. Fear started to interest me, especially because I witnessed how this feeling that lived inside of everyone, could easily slip out of our control and can start wars, but can also be the strongest motivator for making treaties.
And this feeling can completely change our personalities; it can bring the wild animal out of the most peaceful housewife, but it can also, given the right situation, make the most selfish person tap into their selfless, generous instincts. And not just in war zones. I’ve been witness to what fear does to us in more peaceful countries, too: like fuel, it can drive us forward, or backward, too. Because fear can be a real driving force, like some kind of gasoline, which can move us to act in unexpected ways. But what determines whether it affects us in a positive or negative way? I just couldn’t find a straightforward answer to the question. What does it depend on for it to bring our best or our darkest side to the surface? Our personality? The circumstances? The nature of the danger that’s present? Socialization? The physiological processes taking place inside of us?
The closer I examined the nature of fear, the clearer it became to me that our bodies, minds, muscles and our physiological reactions can in fact be calculated, and they start the same reflexes, they give the same responses when we sense danger, for thousands of years. Evolution didn’t make many memorable changes to how our brains’ alarm systems turn on and alert our bodies, like a building’s smoke detector. What’s changed dramatically, though, is what we perceive as dangerous. A trauma expert put it this way: our smoke detector no longer just turns on when our house is on fire, but also when we’ve burnt our toast. Our living conditions have radically changed. It’s rare for us to have to run from bears these days, or for our lives to depend on being able to quickly recognize the signs of a natural disaster. But then how have our filters and our ability to analyze the outside world adapted to our new way of life? What has happened to our alarm system? Was evolution simply unable to recalibrate it? Was it unable to refine its sensors to fit our modern way of life? But why?
In search of answers to these questions, I spent long months with my head buried in books to better understand the physiology of fear, its role in our evolution, the nature of various traumas and the methods that can help people process fear. And an entirely new world opened before me. I learned that there’s practically no aspect of our lives and our worlds that does not in some way connect to the issue of fear. Beginning with how, for instance, our bodies develop fear’s most important hormone, cortisol, in reaction to an ascetic diet plan, all the way to what a country’s immigration policy has to do with our brains’ mirror neurons, which are responsible for both empathy and fear’s infectious nature. Of course, I’m not a biologist, doctor or psychiatrist. I only had one goal in trying to understand, organize and process the information I’d collected, so that I can understand one of human behaivor’s most important motivators: how fear influences us. And whether this process can work both ways: are we capable of having an impact on our own fears? Are we capable of influencing the physiological processes, decisions and behaviors that are controlled by our fears?
While I searched for answers, current events happening in the world and here in Hungary provided more and more motivation for my research. Brexit, which shocked everyone, Trump winning the election, which shocked everyone even more, the effect of anti-refugee campaigns in Hungary, and the increasingly overt racism around the world all touched me deeply and made me wonder: why? What stands behind these phenomena? What are their motivators? These countries live more comfortably, peacefully and are better off than ever before. Where is all this anger coming from? It seemed obvious to me that I had to look for the answers in fear, or in the lack of recognizing, understanding and managing fear, to be exact. It seems like even a small, unexpected event can easily push European societies used to a predictable standard of living and security out of their comfort zones. In fact, the more developed a society, the greater the amount of information its members are overwhelmed with, and so the more trouble they have filtering, containing and monitoring this constant stream of information. This is dangerous for two reasons. First, because this creates a huge gap in our security shield, as the leaders of our political systems, our economies and our consumer societies have learned exactly how to manipulate our fears. Second, because many times we don’t even need bad intentions for fear to hold us back. The more stimuli, experiences, messages and directives reach us per minute, the less capable we’ll be of processing everything. And this tainted state of mind is further burdened by the invisible, looser or thicker net we weave from the expectations of our parents, friends, enemies, neighbors, but primarily from those that we have of ourselves. While lions do not threaten us anymore, we create plenty of other reasons to be afraid so that this alarm can go off again and again.
At the same time it can’t be by accident that thousands of years of evolution hasn’t wiped away fear. I do think that fear is an important and positive feeling, which helps us find our limits and even helps us overcome them! But to accomplish this, it is important to know what fear is, how it works, how it affects us, how it differs from anxiety and how we can get it to work for us, so that we can step out of that ever more common state of mind, according to which the world is an entirely unpredictable place where we are constantly the victims of circumstances.
I would describe my journey – which might help for others, too, to recognize their fears – like this: I started to surf on the ocean. Fear is a like a huge, untamable wave, which we can learn to lie on, and if we trust ourselves enough, we can learn to be laid back and pick up the rhythm of the waves. At first it throws us around for a while, but it finally gives us a strong enough push to carry us to shore. If we try to direct the wave, however, and kick against it too much, if we try to overpower it, then the wave just simply swallows us and slaps us to the sea-bed. This incredible force has wiped me out a couple times, too. How was I able to climb back onto the surfboard? It helped a lot that on my journey, in both warring countries and in peaceful ones, that I’d met incredible people who’d led incredible lives, and they told me how after a lot of struggling they learned to read and ride the stormy waves. That’s also why I’ll talk about Anthony Graves, who sat on death throw decades for a crime he didn’t commit. And about Catherine Ajok, who after thirteen years of slavery escaped from one of the cruelest African militias with an infant, with whom she wandered around the Ugandan jungle for a month...
Catherine’s face is on my mind now, too. I can practically see her deep, dark eyes, radiating with infinite resolution. How relative fear becomes thinking of her story! As I stare at the yellow spot on the ceiling from the operating table, I notice my clenched fists slowly release, simply from diverting my attention and looking at myself and my fear from the outside for a few minutes. But a deep shame suddenly overwhelms me. I’m thinking about war shootings and torture while I should be letting grace wash over me! Am I stupid to ruin the happiest day of my life?!
“Look, your husband’s back!” The head nurse’s happy voice pulls me out of my swirling thoughts. I see Ervin’s anxious face, making me feel a bit calmer again. He waves at me in his green scrubs from the other side of the glass, the corners of his mouths reaching to his ears. He’s signaling that everything’s okay. That calm energy of his that I’ve always loved about him permeates through me. I try to give myself over to the moment, finally letting all sorts of feelings rush through me. Good ones and scary ones just the same. Okay, for many months this wasn’t how I’d pictured this day. It’s true I didn’t imagine an operating table when I was preparing for the most beautiful moment of my life...but this doesn’t change the fact that I’M GOING TO BE A MOTHER! And if this is how it must happen, if I must bring my daughter into this world via a C-Section, then let me at least be present and whole-heartedly live through this fantastic journey, through which my cherished child will start her adventurous life on this earth.
And no matter what I imagined, it’s nothing compared to that moment when the head nurse takes Her from the doctor’s hands and lifts Her to my head, our bodies touch, and we look into each other’s eyes for the very first time.
SHORT DESCRIPTION OF EACH CHAPTER
In the Crossfire of Hate
The Refugee Crisis, Trump’s Presidency, Brexit - old and new recipes for irrational politicizing, being reminded of our mortality, and the manipulation of our empathy receptors.
How did I end up in the crossfire of hate in four minutes, all around the world? An international news television’s report on Hungary put together a report on the refugee crisis - people crossing the border and the Hungarian government’s hard stance against it. In this report they mentioned me as a TV reporter of Syrian-Hungarian background who volunteered to help the refugees at the border, and organized the shipment of some donations. But the editor was precise enough, he carelessly blended my story with the story of the Hungarian camera-woman who several days earlier had the audacity, while working, to kick a refugee child and his father as they ran across the border. Her story went viral, creating a storm of indignation all around the world. And now anyone who did not pay full attention to this TV report— and apparently many people didn’t—thought that I was the camera-woman in question. A few minutes after the report aired, hateful, threatening emails began flooding my inbox in all kinds of languages, and from all parts of the world, calling me a fascist, a racist. As the absurdity of fate would have it, just a few weeks prior to this, I’d been stamped as a “migrant sympathizer” in another series of hateful messages from the “other side” after detailing my relief efforts in an article. I’ll admit that fear reached the most hidden corners of my soul when I saw these emails. And not because I had never been a target due to my Syrian background before, or because I was concerned for my physical safety. But because it had become clear to me that this world, and especially Hungary, will never be the same place as before. I could feel it in my bones that the refugee crisis—and particularly, how politics and the media exploited it for their own selfish aims—was diving, polarizing, and shoving people to opposite ends of the political spectrum. Because fear starts working like a centrifugal force when it is raised to a societal level and becomes a common anxiety, pushing us farther away from the calm center and to the wall, to the edge with increasing force. In my first chapter, I write about what factors were necessary for this centrifugal force to develop. World-renowned social psychologists and marketing specialists discuss manipulation, and how to protect ourselves from it. I write about researchers who explain how mirror neurons, or rather, the so-called “mirror neuron gap,” works, and how it affects those behaviors we mirror from others. I mention why irrational politicizing, which is becoming increasingly more common, is dangerous, and how the fact affects our fears that the human race is fundamentally characterized by an irrational, visceral, and automatic thinking, and that there’s a fundamental need for us to identify with a certain group so that we can willingly harbor animosity toward another group. And if all of this were not enough, according to research, our minds are more receptive to negative, dismissive stereotypes about groups of people who are different from us in some way, and the areas in our nervous systems which are responsible for feeling empathy and pain are less active when we consider people of a different race from us.
Taking all of this into account, I realized that if we don’t deal with our feelings, and especially our fear, more consciously, it’s unpredictable what kind of society we’ll be living in in ten, fifteen years from now. Those in power have been manipulating us with our fears for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. One circumstance is very different today, however: we unleash visceral reactions, simple buzzwords, and sentences that arouse mass feelings onto a supersonic highway: which is social media. Still, I firmly believe: fear can be an exceptional catalyst for positive change, too. But if we want to use fear as a positive fuel, we have to know how we, people work and how we are affected by one of the most mysterious, frightening, and useful emotions: fear.
A Visit to Afghanistan’s
Infamous Female Warlord
Fear has been part of human nature throughout our evolutionary development: we feel fear because we are human. But it’s important to understand what happens in our nervous system, in our muscles and our brain when the fight-or-flight reaction kicks in.
“There were two massive explosions in the village that we just left. We were the targets. So, everybody, listen the hell up! Because they’re hunting for us!” The intelligence officer told his soldiers, and of course me, when during an Afghan filming we were headed to meet with an infamous female warlord of the country, in a huge convoy. I was right in assuming that this trip would be determinative and I would notice entirely new aspects of fear both in myself and in my fellow travelers. This was the first shooting where I moved about with soldiers, and I could observe the events from their perspective. In the past, in various war zones I intentionally shot with civilians and as a civilian, even in Afghanistan. Later, Hungarian soldiers serving in the country got on my case about how, one year prior, I’d traveled through various settlements of Baghlan province without armed guards or armored cars. They claimed that the Taliban put bounties out on our heads. But peering out onto the side of the road from the backseat of the armored vehicle, I doubted that I was safer in a convoy of soldiers than in an unmarked Jeep without armed and conspicuous escort. I already had an idea how the Taliban’s “hunts” typically played out. But I became really curious as to whether a soldier could get used to the constant fear that anything could happen at any moment. Are there people out there who after a certain point can let go of fear? And is this wise, anyway? “Danger begins where fear ends,” a Las Vegas acrobat once told me and the soldiers I was around were of the same opinion. Fear is truly the safeguard of vigilance. It helps us sense and map danger, sharpens our instincts, energizes our bodies, produces adrenaline and often narrows our way of thinking, which also has an important function: so that we can concentrate more precisely. For me it was in the field where I first had to experience how my body and psyche react to life-threatening situations - when I lived through my first shootings, first in Darfur, then in Beirut, Gaza, Israel, Libya… I experienced all the well-known symptoms. My temple would start pulsing, my palms would sweat, my stomach would be in knots and I’d feel like fear was keeping my whole body ready to spring into action. Sometimes my body would react more quickly to certain situations than my mind. But I slowly realized that I do not have to fear from all of this. In fact, just the opposite! Fear can often greatly increase our power to perform. In this chapter, I write about fear’s psysiological processes, from Walter Bradford Cannon’s discovery about changes in our brain when we fear, to the fight-or-flight response. I digress into how, in case of children, when they do something wrong and we tell them the potential consequences of this, their brain - based on the point of its development, - can perceive this as a threat, triggering further fight-or-flight response. I also write about how these days our so called “fear centers” don’t just alert us of real dangers. Rejection, shame, or, as it’s sometimes referred to, “the pain of shame” is also capable of activating our sympathetic nervous system, putting our entire body in a state of readiness, triggering our fear response.
A Historic Moment for Media
on the Border of the Gaza Strip
Our brain is incredibly plastic and changes its structure after every action we take, perfecting its circuitry. That’s the good news. The bad news is that persistent fear and trauma are also capable of rewiring the brain, which can be the reason why there are so many never ending conflicts in our world.
“Get down!” Yells the man standing near me when an ear-piercing, air-defense siren rings out on the hill where we arrived just a few minutes prior. He gets down with those around him. I just stand there, my feet rooted to the ground. The siren indicates that a Qassam rocket is headed for us, specifically for the Israeli border areas from the Palestinian side. While my brain sounds alarms, I’m frozen, paralyzed. And despite the rolling camera, I’m incapable of forcing a single intelligent thought out of my lips. In this chapter I take the reader to Israel and the Gaza Strip, where I’ve shot several times by now. Seeing the several decades-long conflict there, it shook me what fear can bring out of people, regardless of personality or values —on both sides. On an exceptional New Year’s Eve which I spent on the so-called “media-hill” with correspondents who worked for CNN, Al-Jazeera and a slew of other networks, I was dumbfounded to see how a morbid kind of war tourism came to unfold, with telescope-peeping, sunflower-eating, bringing plastic chairs for the perfect view. Is this a kind of protest against a life of constantly being on alert, threatened, in hiding? As the Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk, who used to be a correspondent in the Middle East, put it: the problem is that no one is brave enough to show they’re afraid, for fear that the enemy may take it as a sign of weakness. That’s how the spiral starts, in which fear works as a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this chapter, I thoroughly explore how persistent fear literally rewires the brain and even permanently changes the brain’s physical structure. I write about how, throughout the course of evolution, our brain went through three crucial developments, which created the reptilian brain, which is the most ancient part of the brain, then the limbic system, then the neorcortex. And that even today anger, hunger and fear are connected to the most ancient part of our brain, the reptilian brain, just like our demand for domination and social hierarchies, and the fact that from time to time we respond to certain things with aggression.
In war, when we’re constantly in danger, the most ancient part of our brain dominates us, and it is responsible for our need to survive, protect our territory, act aggressively, putting our need to dominate before rational thoughts and empathy. After all, the human brain is characterized by its incredible plasticity: after every action it changes its own structure and perfects its circuitry so that it can better administer its given tasks. This is often useful, but serious traumas can cause permanent changes to the brain, modifying those filters through which individuals observe the events around them. Along with other factors this can also contribute to the fact that when generations grow up in war zones and the traumatic experiences basically start in the mother’s womb for the fetus, it seems hopeless that the opposing sides will resolve the conflict in a rational manner we would expect. And this can be witnessed not only in war zones. We’ve learned that several terrorists who’ve carried out attacks in Europe - for instance the one in Munich - were often victims of harassment or other forms of trauma previously. Lots of people misunderstand trauma: we don’t need to face very dramatic events to experience something as traumatic. Trauma is when we cannot come to terms with an event. Rifling through my own memories, I realized that even I once exhibited symptoms of PTSD, too, but I didn’t even admit it to myself at the time that I needed help. Luckily, by now medicine has proven that the physical changes in the structure of the brain in case of PTSD are not irreversible. In this chapter, I reveal several new and exciting methods for this, from TRE, which involves shaking the body, to TIME CURE, which appeals to dimensions of time.
What is Worse: Humiliation
or an Incoming Rocket?
We already know what happens in the body when we’re afraid. But are all fears the same? According to a researcher, all our fears can be categorized into five basic fears, which can be arranged into a hierarchy, in a pyramid shape.
“There is a chance that the airstrike siren goes off during your broadcast. It’s not likely that the Qassam rocket shot from the Gaza Strip will slam close to us, but live broadcast or not, we and the entire technical staff, including the cameraman standing behind your camera, will run for shelter the moment it sounds. You can do whatever you want” – said the tech guy of the satellite station with a phlegmatic expression on his face, when he stepped up to me at the Israeli-Gaza border. It hit me as if he poured a bucket full of ice on me, two minutes before the live broadcast. I could feel my already high adrenaline level hitting the sky, while my mind started racing, searching for the answer: if the siren really does go off, should I stay or run? Of course, this was just one of the many absurd situations I lived through during my time reporting from different war zones. Where standing in front of the camera —shameful or not to admit —I was often terribly nervous. Because the chances of freezing up, messing up or embarrassing yourself are very high during a live broadcast. But how does this play out? Because in a life-threatening situation all fears related to work, shooting and performing can seem so trivial. At the same time even during times of war our priorities can get completely flipped on their heads, when every fiber of our body gets tense from stage fright. Can we rank, grade and list our fears in a scale? In this chapter I am looking for this answer, presenting the so-called “fear pyramid.” At the base of the pyramid is the fear of death and the fear of extinction. Above that is the fear of amputation, and above that is the fear of losing our autonomy. Then comes the fear of separation, while the fear of ego-death is at the very top of the pyramid. It turns out that lots of modern phobias and anxieties can be traced back to one of these five basic fears. When I met this theory, it really caught my attention. So I looked for the researcher who presented it, called Dr. Karl Albrecht. In an interview I asked him what he thinks of my notion that in our modern societies this pyramid shape with the five basic fears shall be flipped. Because in my view our deepest concerns are still linked to fears of death. At the same time our ego plays such an important role in our individual-centric lives today that the fear for our ego’s death blurs all our other fears. I learned from an American study that people are more afraid of public speaking than of death. We want as little to do with death as possible anyway: we don’t know of any metaphysical explanation for it, so we don’t even want to think about it. Meanwhile there is only one certain thing in our lives: that we will die. Where will it lead us as a society that some parents only put ground meat on their children’s plates, so that the little ones don’t have to face the fact that they’re eating a dead animal? Where will it lead us as a society that we already distance ourselves from death as much as possible while trying to protect our egos from every little hardship? In this chapter I ask practicing psychiatrists about these matters, trying to explain how using the fear pyramid and ranking fears can help treat those with phobias and panic disorders.
Free Libya, Free Whiskey, Free Beer!
Fear is an important feeling that we can use as a driving force. But to do this, we have to find its pure and essential form, which we often turbocharge with our imagination, creating anxieties for ourselves.
I almost step on a hand grenade as I try to get to the gate of the armory. Hundreds of shoulder-launched rockets, ammunition and flipped over crates, filled with explosives lie about everywhere on the bleak terrain. I don’t dare think about how little would it need to launch the whole place – including us - into the air. Our guide tells us to hurry, because the next airstrike could be here any minute. That’s when I notice men dressed in civilian clothes standing next to the building. They seem lost: locals who are lifting and examining one RPG after another. My throat constricts as I ask myself: what circumstances can bring a family man - who may have spent thirty years stooped behind an office desk - to come to a ravaged armory in order to sort through shoulder-launched rockets to take one home. In this chapter I take the reader behind the scenes of the Libyan uprising, where incredible energies raged when, following the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, Libyans also decided they’d had enough of Gaddafi’s forty-two-year-long dictatorship. As an answer, the regime started to brutally crush the riots, targeting us, foreign journalists as well. So obviously I had a lot of fears before I headed off for Libya. At the same time, through my years as a war correspondent, I discovered that physical and temporal distance always heightens our sense of danger. Because the lack of information results in gaps in our knowledge, while our imagination is eager to fill them in so quickly that we don’t even notice it. Whether it be about a personal challenge, hardship or illness: as the feared event starts to unfold and take shape, the more information we learn about it, the more manageable and less fatal it all seems, and the less helpless we feel about it. And once I am already in the field, every fiber of my being is detecting the circumstances, paying particular attention to all potential threats. In those moments my work doesn’t let me ponder the future or the possible outcomes of the events. I have to be one hundred percent present so that I can make the right decision in all situations, including those that suddenly and unexpectedly present themselves. At times like that, I have to be so present that I can literally feel myself living. Anyone who experiences this, even just once, realizes how little time we spend in the present. More often than not, we’re either hung up on the past or worry about the future. But why? Life happens in the present! And still, in an absurd way, staying consistently in the present is the hardest thing to do. And this explains the important difference between fear and anxiety. As one of my interviewees, Brian David Johnson explained it with a formula: anxiety = fear multiplied by imagination. Anxiety is nothing else but intangible fear projected into the future, spiked with our imagination. And this formula has an element—imagination—that is completely malleable, difficult to grasp and control, and which we can’t even face. And this is exactly why it’s destructive! This is also why I give examples of how important it is to recognize when politicians, consumer-based marketing strategists or even those in our immediate vicinity use fear as a currency, almost betting on each other to frighten us what presents a bigger danger in our everyday lives.
My First “Classic” War
Fear is a kind of fuel that can bring the best and worst out of us. But what determines whether it pushes us into a positive or negative direction?
We’re surrounded by faces distorted by anger and threatening fists while expletives are hurled at us as we stand in the middle of the increasingly suffocating crowd. Just moments ago, they were happily showing a V with their fingers, gesturing the sign of victory at the camera. Now the air is stifling and we should make a run for it. We’re in a residential area of Beirut, during the first week of the Lebanon-Israel war, when the crowd suddenly turns against us after a man shows up and starts yelling that we’re spies. It’s a shocking thing to witness how one person can transform a celebrating crowd into a scared and angry one, in less than a minute. All this in a country I’ve visited thousands of times before and I know through personal experience how friendly the people are here. A few days later though, we live through a very opposite experience. We experience such benevolence and selfless generosity in the villages above Beirut that we are absolutely astounded. What’s the common denominator in the two situations? It’s obvious: fear. Because fear works in us like a kind of fuel. It can move us with astonishing efficiency into two completely opposite directions! My own experiences and reactions in different situations also support the idea that fear can bring out the best and the worst from us. Under its influence, we can instinctively carry out such selfless, even heroic acts that we may never have known we were capable of otherwise. Fear makes us capable of pushing our physical and mental limits. How many times have we seen someone risk their life for someone else in an emergency without a second thought? Like pulling someone out of the way of an oncoming train? But what do we do when in reaction to fear we start punching and kicking, not only fleeing, but also giving way to negative energies? When the adrenaline and cortisol our brain releases in response to fear take over the wheel and make an aggressive person out of us, someone we don’t even recognize? When they push us to commit actions that go against our values? I don’t think there’s a single person out there who hasn’t experienced this, even if only in a milder form. I think the biggest problems happen when people don’t notice how fear controls their actions, like exclusion, stereotyping and scapegoating. In this chapter, I write about these kinds of cases. Not primarily ones set in war zones, but more so during times of peace, in common, everyday situations. And I analyze the dilemma: what determines the direction that fear pushes us into? Why does it bring out panic and aggression from us in some situations, while it makes us become extremely brave or altruistic in others? Maybe it depends on the kind of danger at hand? Or our mental state in the given moment? The people around us or our surroundings? Or simply our personality? What I realized is that it often only depends on us noticing in time that we are afraid, consciously realizing and pinning down this feeling that is preparing to either secretly or openly control us. Fear is contagious. But bravery is too. Fear can undress our spirits and people often become frail and helpless under its influence. This is often when they realize how alike we are despite our differences. I think this is how the acknowledgment and acceptance of fear stimulates people to commit incredibly selfless acts.
Half a Year in Solitary Confinement:
The Story of a Determined American
In order to use fear as a fuel, we must recognize whether we need to take a concrete action or we need to shift our perspective. To determine this, we need to judge where our circle of influence begins and ends.
“It smells like a cesspool, and Céline Dion’s voice is constantly echoing from every corner of the floor. Sleep well so that at least one of us can, my love!” I type the words into the phone. I end the message with a smiley face. But I have no desire to smile at all. We haven’t had any running water for three days in this five-star Libyan hotel, since Gaddafi - out of revenge - turned off the massive conduits leading to Tripoli, and the hotel’s reserves have run out too. In this chapter I return to Libya, to the final days of the Gaddafi regime. When the rebels slowly occupied every inch of the city from one corner to the other, and hundreds of correspondents fought over the two still-working hotels’ rooms left. That was where I met James Foley, who had just escaped one of Gaddafi’s infamous prisons with the help of the Hungarian ambassador after half of year of imprisonment. That was also when I met another American, Matthew Van Dyke, who was likewise imprisoned for half a year in a bathroom stall-sized cell. The two guys’ stories still haunt me months later, so I look them up to interview them. But Foley is leaving for Syria, so he politely passes on the opportunity. Matthew, on the other hand, toes the line and explains that he didn’t go to Libya to work as a correspondent – but to fight. As he has many friends in the country, he couldn’t sit idly by at home while the government was killing them. He claims that if you believe in something, you shouldn’t just sit on your couch and keep your thumbs up: go out and do something about it. But when Matthew reaches Libya, he’s captured on his second day and thrown into prison. This is how a half a year long fight for his freedom and mental faculties start. Because after several weeks of solitary confinement, he begins to lose his mind. Eventually, the Libyan rebels take control of Tripoli and release him along with other prisoners. But Matthew has no desire to go home - at least not until the rebels capture Gaddafi. Shall it raise a smile or shall it make us revaluate things that someone can so strongly believe that we have a lot bigger impact on our world than we would suppose? He claims that after he was released, another reason he didn’t go home was because he believes that we can only battle our fears if we face them head on, if we enter the situation we’re afraid of. If we avoid the place or the situation where our trauma occurred, then we have no chance of ever reliving the trauma in a different way, and it will be much harder for us to associate other, positive feelings with it that could overwrite our lived horror. What tools do people use to finally overcome their hardships? It was a huge help for me to stumble upon an incredibly easy method called the “circle of influence” and the “circle of concern” technique. In this chapter, I write about different kinds of coping strategies, specifically the problem-focused coping strategy where we feel like we can influence the given situation. In this case we try to change the situation with certain actions. But sometimes no matter what we do, we just simply cannot affect and change certain things we’re afraid of. Like a terrorist attack, or the loss of a loved one. We can’t intervene in such situations. We can only choose our perspective on the given situation, how we interpret it and what value we assign to it. So, we can only change our feelings and thoughts, which is why this is called an emotion-focused coping strategy. Coping mechanisms can be really helpful in our daily lives, but only if we are capable of recognizing how we should try to solve our problem or treat our fear. Often, we apply the wrong strategy. I approach this issue, too, in this chapter, by telling the story of a manager facing bankruptcy, the story a young man sentenced to death row innocently, and the story of a model who lost one of her legs in a car accident. Thanks to their fears they all realized that they can have a much greater impact on their lives than they previously thought so.
From Breakdown to Globe-Trotting:
The Story of Bendegúz
We can expand our circle of influence, but we have to take on risks to accomplish this. We have to let go of the thing that an emancipated person holds onto the most: the sense of control.
“There I was, stuck in the mud in the middle of the forest. I thought I would never make it out of there. I was stuck for at least three hours before two soldiers showed up. They couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw me. They couldn’t understand what the hell I was doing all by myself in the middle of the jungle.” Bengedúz’s lips pull into a smile as he gets lost in his memories of Panama, which he retells like they’re stories of visiting an amusement park. The young man has traveled all of South America and Africa, most of Asia and has taken on a Sudanese and an Afghan tour, too. He’s left his comfort zone countless times. And all this in a wheelchair. At 19, Bendegúz fell off a tree during conditioning training and broke his spine. His life, self-respect and vision of the future were destroyed. But at the lowest point one can reach, Bendegúz chose to live. He finished college and started traveling the world. What kind of self-motivation did he need to face his fears? In this chapter I write about this, using the stories of other men and women who experienced similar, difficult situations: from complete self-doubt to developing a belief in themselves and in their capabilities. How can we step out of our comfort zones? Let’s do something we don’t want to do at all, something that elicits strong feelings from us. It may be anger, jealousy or longing. All these feelings could feed on the fear that had brought frustration, helplessness and jealousy out of us. We will not know where our limits are unless we push them. Lots of people try to dance on a small surface without bumping into the walls throughout their whole lives. But as Brené Brown, American shame and empathy scholar writes, if we spend our lives waiting to become “perfect and bulletproof” before we step into the battle arena, we will sacrifice potential opportunities and connections that we may never be presented with otherwise. Fear can be a great compass to start us down this road. It can show us where we still have work to do. Of course, we must lay the groundwork first, just like how mountain climbers build base camps before heading for the mountaintop. I’ve thought a lot about how and when my base camp was built to have the courage to take off for Darfur or the Lebanon war when I was twenty-six, without any outside help or prior war experience, with a single cameraman. We did not even have a normal bulletproof jacket. And then I realized that my entire childhood served as base camp. The first time I visited the Middle-East I was a year and a half, I got to know Syria and the surrounding countries, and later on I even lived in some of them. It was part of my early understanding of the world that there are so many different cultures, traditions and values – and yet we are so much the same. And I learned that we all face fears – what differs is how we let them be part of our lives. In our Western world so many struggle to accept the unpredictable nature of life, which is why so many people try to hide behind habits and close off the borders of their comfort zones, looking for safety from external support. At the same time poverty and simple life make millions wiser. People who are vulnerable and exposed to nature find it self-evident that the most primary characteristic of life is that it changes. But what does safety really mean for the man of our modern world after all? I talk about these concerns, too, in this chapter, quoting the expert Bruce Schneier on how our actual security and our sense of security can split from each other, and how politics, marketing and basic, evolutionarily coded human traits can affect the filters influencing our sense of security, since we consider those things the biggest risks that we hear about most often. One of the most important steps to managing fear is to approach the question of fear and control in new ways, for us to accept that safety must come from the inside, from ourselves. That safety actually lies in the complete acceptance of uncertainty. In order to handle even the most unpredictable situations, it’s more important for us to learn to trust ourselves instead of trying to control everything. Of course, to accomplish this, I had to learn how to build the little mile-stones of success into my self-confidence, as a journalist and as a mother, too. And I realized that the further we venture outside of what we perceive to be our borders, the stronger our sense of security becomes.
One Step Away from
the Never Ending Circle of Revenge:
The Tales of Two Radical Fathers
Fear is a factor, not a fact. We label ourselves when we identify ourselves with our fear. But even if we acted out of fear up to now, we have the capability to change and act in spite of our fear next time.
“If my daughter’s murderer comes up to me and says he wants to apologize, I will take revenge on him,” sais the man on the stage, articulating every word slowly, emphatically. Resolve shines in his deep, brown eyes. He’s from the Palestinian territories. The Budapest vocational school’s massive hall is filled to the brim for his performance. More than a hundred teens are listening to Bassam Aramin as he tells his story about the day when an Israeli soldier shot his daughter in the head. “When everything changes, we have to decide which road we’re going to take. And I decided. If my daughter’s murderer comes to me to apologize, I’m going to take revenge on him by unmercifully forgiving him.”
Then the man standing beside him takes the mic. He’s Israeli, and his daughter died when the bus she was traveling on was blown up by a Palestinian suicide bomber. “Sometimes it’s not easy to recognize the enemy’s face, the humanity and nobility in them. Sometimes we wish that all of them were murderers, so that we could justify why we are at war with them. Then we wouldn’t have to take responsibility for our actions or feel ashamed of them. But you can’t resist people like Rami.” The Israeli father puts his hand on the Palestinian man’s shoulder. “This is how we became best friends.”
In this chapter, I describe how these two exceptional men were able to become friends and how they chose to work together, in stead of stepping into the hellish circle of revenge. I write about how they regard the true sense of being a victim and how some try to forge power and capital out of it. No one is born radical—a situation can turn someone radical, and when a conflict weighs heavy on people, many turn to radicalism. According to the two men, revenge is a much easier path, because it takes the least amount of energy. Revenge is the choice of the lazy. But what does it depend on for someone to get back up after such a tragedy? According to the two fathers, it depends on how able we are to rise above our loses and our pain. Similar dilemmas can develop in our everyday lives, too, in situations that are severely less spectacular yet deep and complex, like after a breakup or losing a job. At times like this, we either take on the role of the victim, or we look for another way to approach the loss, and try to grow from the experience. I analyze this question in this chapter with the help of Carol Dweck’s theory of mindset, since the difference between the fixed and the growth mindset accurately captures how people react to life’s difficulties and the fear that accompanies them. I also deal with how previous, suppressed fears, harassment and trauma can lead to tragedies, as the world-renowned social psychologist Elliot Aronson proved in his investigative study of the Columbine High School shooting. By further weaving the theory of mindset, I arrive at how, through the interviews I’ve conducted with people over the years, I’ve met with two opposing approaches about how people regard fear. Some treat fear like a fact, like a feeling brought forth and determined by outside factors, and they rely on their natural-born courage or cowardice to explain how they react to it. This is exactly why they consider fear a kind of chain, an unchangeable fact which serves as a kind of punishment restricting their lives due to their cowardice. This phenomenon is what I’ve named the shackle-concept. Many treat fear like a factor, not a fact, however. They recognize that we are not equal to our fears, and that often they reflect our subjective state. This is precisely why we can change and develop how we approach our fears, and we know that this feeling can motivate us with an incredible force. Fear is a fantastic compass: if we consciously head in the direction it shows us, we can build our capacities and skills to deal with various situations, like we build a muscle. And once we are ready to build these success experiences into our self-confidence, we can approach situations we once would have considered frightening as challenges we want to take on. I have called this approach the compass-concept. One of the conditions, though, is that we first notice, then become conscious of, and accept our fear and ourselves together with our fear. Accepting fear is not the same as giving up or resignation. To support this, I write about the man who innocently sat on death row in the US for many decades, but never gave up the fight and was finally acquitted. I also write about the Ugandan girl who was kidnapped by one of the most brutal African militias as a child. The girl found the courage to face her fears and to try to escape the militia after thirteen years—and succeeded.
Human Experiments on TV,
in the Lab and in Real Life
What would I do if I were brave? It’s important for us to pose this question to ourselves as often as we can. Especially when forced compliance, others’ opinions, commands or the power of a situation drives us to act in a way that is not in accordance with our values.
The concrete bruises my shoulder, and the wind blows dust into my mouth. Who knows how long I’ve been lying on the ground—fifteen, maybe twenty minutes? I can feel the crowd moving around me and I can hear the rhythmic slapping of slippers next to my head. I can sense people coming and going, standing in my immediate vicinity. But no one steps up to me. No one bends down to ask if I’m okay, or if I’m even alive. As if it was normal to see a woman lying motionless on the ground in a skirt amongst all these happy, selfie-taking tourists at the foot of the Golden Gate bridge. The sun is shining hellishly, time stops, and my self-esteem shatters to pieces. I’m invisible. I open my eyes a sliver and see the blue sky, and the bustle. I try to gather all my strength to ask for help. Just a sip of water. I sit up slowly and see a young, blonde girl heading my way. I turn to her and ask in a quavering voice, “Can you help me find some water?” The girl’s face contorts into a grimace, and after a little hesitation she says, “No.” And she walks on.
When, after half an hour, still no one wants to helps, I get up. How luckily I am that this is just a social experiment and I don’t actually need help. We conducted similar experiments in four other cities: in Los Angeles, London, Oslo and Budapest. And even in Norway, a place known for its tolerance, seventy people passed by me while I slumped against a light pole. Because faced with such a scene, our mind usually tells us several dozen possible excuses. “I’ve gotta run.” “There’s nothing wrong with her, she’s probably just drunk”. “If there is really something wrong with her, someone else can certainly help her better than I can.” Of course, these thoughts are part of our self-preservation mechanism. At the bottom of this mechanism, almost always fear hides. Fear from the countless things we don’t consciously realize at the moment when we walk past the person in need of help. In this chapter, I examine how unwritten norms, the desire to meet expectations of others and the fear of hanging out of the crowd often prompts us to make decisions that run counter to our values. To demonstrate this, I not only talk about the famous classic social experiments of the 70’s, but with the help of experts, my little team and I even run the remake of Solomon Asch’s famous line experiment, getting the same shocking results as he did about how easily people conform to unwritten norms, even in the company of strangers. I visit world-renowned social psychologists and ask them how fear, the power of situation and peer and social pressure affect us, when we are afraid to stand up for ourselves or others. How we are ready to follow stupid or morally questionable rules and orders if we think that the responsibility doesn’t fall on us. Elliot Aronson explains how the theory of shared responsibility works, and Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the world famous Stanford Prison Experiment, explains how the power of situation can turn even average college students into torturers. A French producer explains how he and his crew recreated Milgram’s obedience experiment on a quiz show, in which test subjects had to shock a person (who they did not know was part of the experiment) each time the person didn’t get the answer right. And 81 percent of the participants went up all the way to a deadly 460-volt electrocution just because the show host instructed them to. Social psychologists claim that we don’t even realize how powerful a force the desire to belong to a group is, and how much the fear of being left out, shunned or stigmatized by a group affects our actions and our decisions. Anthony Pratkanis, who for years also studied the elements of terrorist organizations’ and dictators’ propaganda, talks about how easy it is to play on people’s fear, obedience and their nature of not wanting to take responsibility for their own actions. In light of this, I analyze how the Hungarian government used the refugee crisis as if it was a gift to them. Using the perfectly simple but effective formula of manipulation through a billboard campaign - that cost the government several millions of dollars, - they successfully turned the majority of Hungarians against the refugees and made a common enemy out of Hungarian-born American businessman György Soros, to consolidate their own power. According to Pratkanis, influence acts on us even when we don’t want it to, even if we pay little attention to it. Meanwhile, we become our greatest own censors—like on Facebook, with the help of the platform’s algorithms—by creating an alternative reality bubble for ourselves. But there is a solution to this, just like there’s a solution to recognize when we are being manipulated. The world-renowned influence expert Anthony Pratkanis helps us understand these mechanisms and offers us useful tips how to counter these influences.
Stuck in the Edge of a Cliff:
Stress is the salt of life, but only if there’s not too much of it in our lives. Or, it may not be harmful then either? According to some researchers, it’s not stress that makes us ill but the way we react to it, and with a few tricks we may be able to hack our brains.
I stand on the edge of a cliff as stiff as a rock. The depth is bewitching. How many seconds would I spend freefalling, in the state of absolute loss of control if I were to jump right now? Jump, come on! Do it and jump! I goad myself. I close my eyes. In my mind, I jump into the great unknown and I fly. Well, let’s go then! My palms begin to sweat, my heart hammers away like it’s going to jump out of my chest. I’m dizzy. No, this isn’t working. I open my eyes and look down. Let’s go! Come on! I take another step toward the edge of the cliff. God damn it. I’m not capable of this. I either accept the shameful defeat and climb down the cliff in front of twenty whitewater rafters, or I finally gather the courage and jump into the river. How funny it is that not even a week has passed since I gave a presentation on fear in front of 120 people, talking about how we can step out of our comfort zones. Where’s that knowledge now? I step back at least a meter and a half. It’ll be easier with a running start. Don’t shit the bed! Do it!
In this chapter, I am searching for the answer whether there’s a difference between fear and excitement. As we find out, a lot of research has been done on the subject. Our body produces cortisol both when we are anxious and when we are excited. But how the chemical substance called the stress-hormone actually affects us depends on what context our brain develops around the given situation. When we’re anxious, the cortisol harms our performance, but when we’re excited, it boosts it. But how can we hack our brains? Researchers talk about this in this chapter, along with how we should not demonize stress. Because we’re capable of rewiring our brain and turning our stress into excitement and energy. Canadian doctor Dr. Gabor Mate explains how closely physical health relates to feelings and emotional states. And when something keeps us from learning how to say no, our body may so no for us. Psychologist and therapist Andrew Feldmár likewise talks about how we numb our fears, but from the perspective of what we should do as parents if we are afraid and how it affects our children when they notice we’re afraid. Various researchers offer techniques for facing life’s unavoidable stress by developing a kind of emotional competence. But if we want to do this, it’s important for us to recognize the symptoms of fear on ourselves and notice our body’s physiological and emotional distress signals. I go into how the mindfulness technique can help us in all aspects of our lives. For example, I write about a Norwegian balancing artist who learned to influence his psychological and physical fear responses. Several researchers have conducted experiments on him to learn how he does this. It turns out that consciousness can play a crucial role in how our bodies handle not just acute, but also long-lasting stress, too — and the American psychologist Kelly McGonigal also proved this theory with fascinating data. She openly claims that stress and the physiological reactions that come with it are only harmful if we ourselves consider them to be, and it’s incredibly important in what context our brain analyzes the given situation. We can decide whether we look at a risky event as a frightening situation or a challenge. And thanks to these studies I was able to track back my own experiences and challenges as a war correspondent, and as a mother and realize why I handled certain situations on different ways.