Why Do We Fear the Unknown?

Design to see only what we can comfortably handle as an individual

Door to open or keep closed
When I think broadly of the fear of the unknown what immediately comes to mind is eighteenth century born English poet and printmaker William Blake and one of his quotes, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite”. He went on to elaborate, “For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern”. The narrow chinks of our caverns have been opened just enough for each us by our own design to see only what we can comfortably handle as an individual. The extreme alternative of course is viewing the infinite, which would be the most fearful unknown ever to face.

I also think of Aldous Huxley, the nineteenth century born English writer and philosopher and one of his quotes, “There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception”. These doors exist to both keep things out and to invite things in; however, it is up to each of us to choose which doors we want to open or keep closed. Nor do we even understand what might be behind each door we consider opening. For example, do we even know if it is an entrance or an exit, or both? Choosing not to open certain doors is the fear of the unknown. An easier way to describe this fear of the unknown is to point out the common cliché “Ignorance is bliss”. The less you know the happier you will be.In case you didn’t notice a recurring theme here, it is from these quotes and ideas that Jim Morrison and “The Doors” derived the name for their band.

One more thing that comes to mind is Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, which is a tale of an individual daring to doubt everything he had been taught and conditioned to understand by proclaiming it was not real and that something greater yet awaited him, and everyone. Essentially, he and others were chained together facing a wall in a cave with an eternally burning fire casting shadows from behind them. These blurry shadows demonstrating their every movements were what they came to accept as the realities before them. They were born into this reality and it was all they knew, but one daring individual refused to believe that the silhouettes before him were his reality. He believed they were distorted perceptions of what his life could really be. His friends did not believe him and therein lies the fear of the unknown. They were comfortable in their fettered skins and did not seek truth or the risk to find it, but instead chose to accept enslavement because for them the unexamined life was worthlessly worth living.

1. We are designed to fear the unknown

Whether you are a creationist, athiest, agnostic, evolutionist, or paleontologist we all fear the unknown. It is by some design, although no one can seem to agree by what entity or element. Our brains have an enormous proverbial filing cabinet of past experiences that it is constantly shuffling around to make sense of new experiences. When encountering the unknown it is fear that prevails because our brains do not have a file to associate with the unfamiliar enormity before it.

2. We should laugh at fear and the unknown

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote a short story called “The Dancing Fool”, in which an alien named “Zog” came down to Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. The thing was, this alien communicated by farting and tap dancing. The night “Zog” landed in Connecticut (as the story goes), he noticed a house was on fire and as he ran to warn the Earthlings of the trouble they were in, farting and tap dancing, the head of household knocked him over the head with a nine iron.

3. We ought to embrace the unknown

Sticking to the same routine every day and never questioning why you do it stifles the very essence of experiencing this life. Given multiple shots, we so often keep the gun on safety as a reason to not miss, when in fact the more shots taken will usually lead to a bulls-eye in time.

4. We need to challenge the unknown

Should you find yourself on the overwhelmingly large side of a particular majority then it might be time to question the premise of why you are there with all of those other comfortable creatures. When unknown becomes known it is time to learn something new.

5. We have to approach the unknown with caution

Many people do not have a large interest in broadening the narrow chinks of their caverns or opening doors of perception. Many people are also quite content to be metaphorically shackled together watching shadows on the wall in front of them and believing it is the whole of their existence.

So, be warned, should you take a sledge hammer to your cavern or begin kicking doors down then those around you will likely deem you an eccentric and odd character, when in fact you are nothing of the sort. Proceed with caution. Approaching the fear of the unknown should be slow and calculated like a mountain climb. And upon reaching the top come back down immediately because you are probably not supposed to be there.


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