A young man writes me that he is afraid of thunderstorms, and asks if there is no way for him to overcome this weakness. “I am normal in every other respect,” he adds, “but notwithstanding my endeavors to fight off this nervousness I find it to be of no avail; it appears to be a sort of subconscious fear.”
This is not a matter of ridicule, but a sample of very real and acute suffering to which many persons are subject by fear-panics due to various causes.
Many women scream with terror at the sight of a mouse. There is no use telling them that mice will not hurt them. So doing, you are addressing their reason, while the trouble lies not in their intelligence—it is a nervous disease. They scare just as a horse shies at a newspaper flapping in the wind.
Cæsar Augustus was almost convulsed at the sound of thunder.
Tycho Brahe changed color and his legs shook under him on meeting a rabbit.
Dr. Samuel Johnson would never enter a room left foot first.
Talleyrand trembled at the mention of the word—death.
Marshal Saxe was mortally afraid of a cat.
Peter the Great could never be persuaded to cross a bridge, and, though he tried to master his terror, was unable to do so.
I myself have never been able to rid myself of a fear of horses, and the tamest old nag gives me the creeps.
And I know a senior in Wellesley College, a young lady of strong intelligence, who could be sent almost into convulsions by showing her a spider or a caterpillar.
To determine the cause of these fear-obsessions is a business for the psychologist. They seem to have nothing to do with the mind or the will, but to be, as my correspondent suggests, rooted somewhere in the subconsciousness.
That these weaknesses can be entirely eradicated in a grown person is doubtful. It is about as difficult to uproot an ingrained fear as to get rid of a distaste for mutton. Certain strong natures can perhaps cure themselves, but the average man has to accommodate himself to his weakness and resist it the best he can.
But the cruel part of this whole matter is that almost all of these fears are 95TAUGHT US WHEN WE ARE CHILDREN. Many a child’s mind is deliberately poisoned by fear-suggestions that are to plague him his life long.
Whoever threatens a child, or frightens a child by the fear of thunder or lightning or the dark or ghosts or the bad man or death or hell or a vindictive Deity, should be flogged.
Many a delicate child has been more horribly tormented by suggested fears than he could ever have been hurt by corporal punishment.
The most deeply moral lesson any mother can instil into her child is that he be UNAFRAID—of anything in life or death. And whoso teaches a child a fear has made an incurable wound in his soul.