And Terror

FEAR --

April 13, 1994|By ROBERT BURRUSS

KENSINGTON — Kensington. -- The planet Mars was named for the Roman god of war. Its moons are two of war's attendants, Phobos and Deimos, fear and terror. Greek attendants to a Roman god.

Fear and terror, the words, are often used together and as synonyms, terror being extreme fear. For the ancients, the two words might also have been synonyms, though maybe not. The ante-industrial builders of Western culture lived closer to the earth, and to fear and terror, than do we soft and mostly unchallenged Americans. Maybe the ancients used the two words to acknowledge two distinct states of being. It is a distinction not made these days; maybe it never really was. But one can be made.

Fear and terror have in common that they occur together -- but in sequence, never simultaneously. Fear always comes first. In my experience, fear is a rational response to a physical threat, while terror is an instinctual response having no relationship to rationality.

Fear is uncomfortable, but terror resides outside any equivalent realm of valuation. Fear prepares one for terror. Professional performers are likely to recognize a difference between fear and terror: Fear happens before the performance; terror happens during the performance. A good performance is one manifestation of terror. Fear always prepares one for the performance -- which, historically, has been one of fight or flight.

The cold hands and pale skin color that accompany fear indicate that blood has moved from the parts of the body most subject to damage. Cold sweat reduces body temperature in anticipation of sustained, flat-out exertion. Blood also moves away from the gut, food digestion and protection of the stomach lining from autodigestion being secondary to immediate survival.

Fear, it seems to me, comes from society; we learn it from having been told that this or that activity is dangerous, risky or even stupid or hopeless. It comes from having been told that if you go outside on a cold day without a coat, you will get sick, or that standing at the edge of a high cliff is dangerous, and that all physical risks are foolish and stupid.

Terror, however, as perhaps performers and the ancients know and knew, is based in instinct. It is not learned from society. Terror is the using of prior personal experience to survive an immediate situation. The prior experience might be as simple as hopscotch, while the immediate situation might be having to jump four feet -- across a thousand-foot abyss. Fear says not to do it, and if you have that option, you might not do it. Terror, however, says nothing; simply it acts, if action is needed. Terror is pure action, without judgment or thought of any kind.

One of my several experiences of terror happened at night. There is a hiatus in my memory of all that happened, one that begins when fear ended and terror took over.

I was climbing a vertical cliff out of the Potomac Valley, and I had reached a point where I could find no hand-hold to continue forward, nor could I back up. I was balanced on one knee on the edge of a narrow ledge.

I had not been forced to climb the cliff at night, but having begun it, and finding myself balanced on a kneecap unable to back up or go forward, fear yielded to terror during the millisecond of realization that I could not maintain my delicate balance until someone might find me the next morning.

In that final moment of memory, while balanced on the ledge, the dark river valley lighted up with a brilliant orange light, and the sound of the screaming frogs in the puddles in the rocky riverbed became insanely amplified.

My memory picks up when, with no break in consciousness nor evidence of how it happened, I was standing at the top of the cliff, looking over the dark river valley, and feeling extraordinarily exhilarated.

Memory is social, its trade is words. While one can remember that, say, a dinner was good, memory cannot be summoned in its animal intensity to satisfy hunger. We could not survive if memory could summon actual feelings instead of words for feelings: that the food tasted good is the extent of memory. Hence, I have no memory of that pure, unconsidered, unpremeditated, instinctual response during which thoughts and words were irrelevant and useless.

After having survived the cliff, in the darkness I rode my bike home along several miles of tow path beside the C&O Canal. The exhilaration had a sexual component; I felt fully alive. My performance had been good, and my victory had been glorious.

Recently, on the television news, a man who had spent two hours in 50-degree ocean water mentioned an ''orange light'' just before he was rescued. He said something like, ''I finally gave up and said, Oh, what the hell. And then I saw an orange light.''

When I heard that, I assumed he meant the same light I had seen that night in the river valley, when time stopped and instinct took over. I had never heard anyone mention that strange orange light.

Perhaps the orange light to which the man on television referred was the light from the boat that rescued him. Maybe he was referring simply to a light on a boat . . .Only he didn't say anything about having then been rescued. Maybe he spent another two hours in the water and had no memory of it, terror having done its thing -- making him survive a situation that wordy social reason would call impossible, hopeless, stupid and the rest.

Robert Burruss is an engineer who writes about science and society.

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