Sunday, December 28, 2008

Danger and Fear

Martial arts, combatives training, is part of my risk management strategy. I have spent the better part of the last two decades in close proximity with people who regularly use violence and intimidation as tools to get what they want. Most of this time has been spent unarmed and out-numbered.  I need to manage a certain level of physical danger.

Every skill I acquire, every new technique or idea hits a very clear filter: will it make me safer? Will it increase my chances of getting out of a bad situation intact? I honor tradition, but I don't really care about it- a single family in Japan has kept a tradition alive for over 350 years that has been the core skill of my close-quarters survival. They have my deepest respect and gratitude, but it was the effectiveness, not the age or lineage that earned my respect. Get it? Same with wisdom and athletics and anything else.  They are cool, but not what I need from my training.

The thing is, in my risk management strategy I am managing danger. I get paid to do stuff where stupid people, people who don't pay attention and people who are simply unlucky get hurt.  This shit can be dangerous. I work my ass off to minimize that, predicting and preventing every contingency I can... but any martial skill I develop is for the sole purpose of not being the one zipped into the body bag or waking up in the emergency room.

Most martial artists are not managing danger- they are managing fear and that is an entirely different thing.

Steve Barnes, in his wonderful introduction to "Meditations on Violence" writes:
"... legions of young men swamped martial arts schools all over the world, seeking to be strong, to be brave,  to be capable-- to, in other words, deal with their fear that they would not be able."

I think I could write pages about fear. I don't respond to it the way most people do, though I used to. Most people acknowledge fear as a bad thing and will do a lot to alleviate the discomfort.  I don't usually bother.

Fear isn't real for me. That doesn't mean I don't feel it or that I like it. It simply means that I've had joints popped and small bones broken and an eye gouged and concussions and compared to those, fear isn't real. I have a definite need to avoid the damage, avoid the danger. Fear is just white noise in the background and sometimes a tool.

For most people, fear is a stimulus, a negative stimulus, and they will do what they can to alleviate that negative stimulus. Any animal would do the same. But since fear is mental, it can be alleviated mentally.

You need to be able to do things to mitigate danger.
You only need to think you can do things to alleviate fear.

Compare a blackbelt that took two years to earn in a non-contact system and a blackbelt that took eight years where you had to fight five blackbelts full contact in succession and beat half of them... they alleviate fear just the same. They don't mitigate danger the same.
Note this- danger can only mitigated. There will always be danger and no matter how hard your training is, how realistic, if you are confidant you can handle whatever you will face, it has become a talisman, just as delusional as an easy blackbelt.

Confidence is the result of fear alleviation. It can never be known as over-confidence unless it is tested and failed. If one stays away from danger, the talisman, the confidence, the alleviation of fear are all good things.  If a strategy for dealing with fear alone runs into danger... it's probably just as well that the hindbrain steps in and shuts things down.

A danger management strategy shouldn't lead to confidence.  The more you know about danger, the fewer answers there are. Words like 'always' and 'never' have a way of disappearing from your vocabulary. Confidence is a short step, at most, from complacency, and complacency is the number one killer in danger zones.


Master Plan said...

Would it be fair to say that stress tends to degrade performance past a certain threshold?

Fear as a stressor and confidence as a stress reduction tool.

Per the references in MoV it seems to imply that a certain level of stress arousal increases performance (to some degree at least) in part by moderating adrenal response.

So Fear or any other stress could be viewed as beneficial provided it's contained to certain levels and confidence or any other form of stress limitation\reduction could be viewed as beneficial provided it also is contained to certain levels.

The issue then might simply be stress management and not "fear" per se?

Fear of failure, fear of injury, fear of letting family\team be hurt, fear of loss of status (depending on the context of the dance\violence) but also perhaps a form of stress, which is probably quite similar in flavor to fear, the unexpected or unknown.

And of course the degree to which fear occurs and to which stress effects performance be that positive or negative may or may not have anything at all to do with "reality".

FEAR seems like a kind of buzzword, but "stress"....I don't know, does the change in wording also change how folks would respond to training or to the stimulus in general?

There seems to be, particularly in Male Culture a kind of shame associated with fear that "stress" does not carry. I guess "fear" a response TO stress, or is it the stressor itself?

Elinor said...

It sounds like you're talking about the difference between Fight or Flight. I've seen my mother collapse into the Flight mode, running away from a potentially dangerous situation that she could easily fix - potential bad car accidents where she panics and freezes up and I have to poke her back into acting. It's very weird to watch someone do that thing where a small fuzzy animal just curls up and stares at the snake and hopes if it stares hard enough it will go away.

Which reminds me, I always loved my old pet rat I had as a kid because she had this game where every time an unlucky cat got within a foot of her cage she would fling herself at the bars and make awful sounds at them scaring them so bad their tail almost explode from fright. She was smaller and weaker but she knew how to scare them into being unable to consider her as prey without having to even touch them, it was beautiful.

No one should ever be ashamed of fear. It's normal, but it's also helpful to not let it overtake a person, instead to do the 'dealing with the fear later when I'm not busy running away from the lion'. I've always been fascinated by the idea that you can train people to get into the latter.

I seem to be able to get into the 'uh oh' in the back of my head while I deal with the problem more often than not, but I'm not really sure why I can do that. I want to say it's because I've had to learn early on how to deal with violence as far back as being a 5year old having to figure out how to deal with very large roosters who are almost as big as I am (you pay close attention to their posture then time it so you kick them in the breastbone as hard as you can just as they jump for you) and typical physical bullying problems that I eventually resolved through very non-passive behavior throughout pre junior high, but it seems kind of fake since it's not someone trying to kill me. But then rape is rape, even when you're incapable of saying no. Maybe it's just a random thing for many people; that you can't accurately predict the instant reactions of any one person without certain things already running in the background of one or both participants. Also, running away can be as life saving as fighting, it just depends on the situation. I find it interesting that there are aspects of male culture that insist running away is a bad thing, and I wonder how much of that is nature and how much is from nurture.

This actually makes me want to write a post about PTSD now. Unfortunately that would probably turn into a twenty thousand word essay. Need more coffee to willingly do something like that.

Rory said...

I must have really missed the point on this one.
Jonas: confidence as anti-stress/fear. Yes, except your body and hindbrain may damn well know it was false confidence when the first boot connects and, IME, the stress fear will be greater than if you had had the good sense to go in afraid.

Both of you made excellent points, but neither was connected in any way with what I was trying to say. My fault, it is always the writer's fault when the thought doesn't get through.

It wasn't about stress reduction or fight-or-flight (or the other 2 Fs).

It was about the difference between training for violence and danger and training for the idea of violence and danger. Larkspur, look at the population where we met. Listen to them. They honestly feel that the fiction that they read and the games that they play are good training for life- but when you look at the lives, how many are happy with them, how many are actually the strong, versatile, calm, insightful person that they believe they are. How many are successful at any meaningful thing?

Then look at the pros at the same event- the top end pros do not think or act anything like the fans.

Training for the idea, whether violence or success or whatever, you can be confident without competence, have imaginary security with no increase in safety whatsoever... and it seems like the ones who are doing it, especially martial artists, can't see it. "They are whistling in the dark, but not me..."

Sorry I dropped this one, guys.

Master Plan said...

Don't apologize, now I get the experience of reading the same thing two different ways. ;-)

Instead say, "'s deeper than that....", all mysterious like.

Tricks of the mind control gurus.

I think then tho, to go back to talking about my point, ;-), that for most of your martial arts folks that take "martial arts" for some vague idea of implementing a self defense strategy, if they even make it that far intellectually, are doing so almost purely to manage the fear stress response. Not the real fear stress they'll experience when "that first boot connects", but the fear stress they experience every single day wandering around in the world. Or maybe it's just alternate weekend nights when they stumble home from the bars along those dark and rain slickened streets. They are not training for danger, as you say, they are training for fear reduction. Because...the fear is the only real thing for them. So that's what they are attempting to deal with.

I think that's probably nice for them. Means they don't have to examine the problem behind the problem or look at the real issues of danger, violence, self defense, legal, chemical, emotional, intellectual issues.

Like you say, fear is mental and can be reduced mentally, training MA for "self confidence" or for personal control\"mastery"...that seems easier, to me, than training for....well, whatever my vague ideas about "reality" might imply.

It seems like for many it's beyond even "training for the idea" and right in to "this isn't about the bear hunting is it Bob?" territory.

Which seems so strange because...isn't it usually the case that when you learn about something it becomes....less scary and magical, instead it becomes....just a thing which you know about, or don't.

Computers seem like complicated beasts to some folks, they go high stress, freak out, worry about hackers and viruses, and yet...when you learn to work 'em...they are just stupid irritating boxes that need to have things very clearly explained to them at times. No stress involved.

So it seems interesting that folks would rather either train for an idea, to get confidence, or simply train about for the idea as a way to stop a feeling that doesn't relate to anything at all which exists, in either case they get to be confident, or reduce their fear, but....both methods seems less effective, to me, than learning the real problem and...even if you don't train for it, at least then you know what you're dealing with, and if you do train for it...then you've actually done something productive and managed a real fear response to a real fear. Which probably still doesn't get you any guaranteed results when you go from training to "no shit, it's actually happening" but at least you're working on a reality and not a simulation.

Of course I think it's also true that by and large for "average" folks the things which occur in their heads, the way they see the world, has very little to do with what is actually happening the modern condition most of what we do is very low impact stuff. The way folks feel about things is of truly greater importance because it's going to have the most effect on how they live\experience their lives than "what's actually happening". Ghost worlds of greater primacy than dim specters of harsh reality.

All of this to show that I'm quite capable of missing the point, twice, even after it's been explained to me. ;-)

Master Plan said...

It would also then seem to imply that if you are training for an idea, or even meta-training for a meta-idea, that you would hold fast to those things and deny\reject being forced\asked\shown the actual things themselves. This would be because the more you invest in an idea or thing-tangentially-related-to-an-idea the more the actual thing itself causes to unravel all of what you've learned (and thus all of your self-story you've invested in it).

If you're learning MA for SD so that you can control\feel less fear then discovering that the idea you've been training for, which you use to manage your fear, is an illusion then....doesn't the fear come roaring back all the stronger? Not only are you still not "safe" but you also wasted all the time AND you were unknowingly unsafe that whole time as well.

None of which still has anything to do with actually managing fear and say nothing of actually managing danger.

Steve Perry said...

Isn't always the writer's fault, Rory. Three possibilities come to mind when somebody doesn't get the point I'm trying to make:

1) I didn't present it properly.
2) I did, but they didn't understand it, through some fault of their own.
3) Some combination of both.

If you write a story and a hundred people read it and ninety of them get what you were trying to say, then chances are the other ten bear some responsibility for not getting it.

A thing may indeed be explained simply if the teller understands it properly, but sometimes, even a simple explanation won't ring everybody's chime.

We all carry our own axes and sometimes while we are grinding 'em, we don't hear what is being said, but what we want to hear ...

Elinor said...

No need to apologize Rory, I hold the belief that even if you don't actually understand what a person is saying (this is something I've decided after many indecipherable lectures in college that took a long while to really comprehend) if you gain something from it like a new idea or a question that had never occurred previously, you've still gained something from the experience. It was a thought provoking post.

Your clarification is also right on the nose with professionals vs. fans. It's something I notice as well when I have gone to Orycon. The people writing and succeeding are too busy having a Real Life doing things and have made writing their profession, and are too busy doing that, to be wishing they lived on the starship enterprise and discussing glottal stops in Klingon. Yeah, I don't have much of a flattering opinion of people who get caught up in wishing they could move into their fantasyland castle in the clouds or who forget about the Outside Big Room and think they really live in their castle. One of my arguments with my mother when she tries to get me to wear a costume for Orycon is that I already feel like I'm on another planet I don't need to dress up like I'm out of a movie.

I've had to cut people out of my life after they went so around the bend I came to realized I'd become not an actual friend but someone they wanted to have around to enable their inner fantasy life. It is a sad thing when you realize someone who used to be a friend has decided their inner fantasy world is more important. Not to ah, grind my axe here or anything, hah. I hope I am more simply elaborating on why I agree with your stated opinion.