Lessons From Nature: Fear


Maybe it started with the advent of the 24-hour news station and the never-ending  bombardment of horrific news from every corner of our shrinking planet.

Or is the constant pelting of stories about aberrations—the relatively few violent, criminal acts—covered by local new stations. How often do you see news anchors lead with a story celebrating one of the millions of acts of kindness and compassion occurring all around us all the time?

Whatever the origin, many people are unnecessarily scared and therefore easily manipulated by those who capitalize on fear-filled fantasies. (I try to remind myself that far more Americans are killed by bathroom accidents and other household mishaps than incidents categorized as terrorism.)

For me, when it comes to distinguishing well-founded fear from that which is overblown, usually for profit, it helps to recall a grey reef shark, or simply, with all due respect to space aliens, “a grey.”

In most parts of the Indo-Pacific, where this species of shark is a common resident around reefs, greys are not likely  to bother you. In fact, they can be hard to approach without having them swim off into the blue.

Yet, that assumes: 1. You don’t pester for-some-unknown-reason-aggressive grey reef sharks patrolling Eniwetok Atoll, for example. 2. The absence of bait or an injured fish that can otherwise trigger true mayhem with a ferocious gnashing of lethal razor-like teeth.

Back to the point, several years ago I was in the waters off Fiji, drift-diving through a lagoon at a depth of 90 feet, when I temporarily diverted my path to photograph an especially beefy grey reef shark.

As I slowly approached the grey, I soon realized that it was going to hold its ground. Then, with an eye fixed on my camera viewfinder, I drifted within about ten to twelve feet of my carnivorous subject. “Hmmm,” I thought to myself. “I wonder how close can I get to this beauty without upsetting its peaceful pose?”

That was when electrical signals welling up from my brain’s amygdala basically told me, “Don’t be an idiot. You’re a long way from a hospital. Stay right where you are.”

The fear was clean, rational, smart, useful. I would not approach the shark any closer, even if it meant getting the fuzzy photo (posted today) instead of the sharp shot I had hoped for.

After snapping the picture, I backed off and continued on my placid drift dive with a renewed respect for fear grounded not in fantasy but in fact. Beyond that, being basically a chicken, I succeeded in not exiting the human gene pool with a Darwin-Award-For-Stupid-Behavior.


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