Fear of being alone

In 1979, an unknown writer took the stage at the Kodak Theatre to accept the Oscar for best original screenplay. He beat out, among others, a young Woody Allen, who was nominated for Manhattan. His name: Steve Tesich, a Yugoslavian immigrant who went to Hollywood in pursuit of his American Dream. No one could guess that his stardom would last only one night (practically), or that from then on his name would languish in time, with little known scripts and prolonged absences from the Hollywood scene.

And in one of life’s paradoxes, true fame would come only after his death, with the posthumous release of a novel that almost seems like a parody of his own life: Karoo. Here is a poignant, heartfelt quote from this book:

“‘My daughter Francesca called me on the phone last night,’ Guido tells me. He reaches across the table and places the full weight of his left hand on top of mine. ‘It was late when she called. I was in bed, but not asleep. Do you know what she said?’

‘No, I don’t.’

‘Papa,’ she told me, I’m just calling to see how you are and to tell you that I love you.’

His big chin begins to tremble. Tears begin to well up in his drunken eyes. A sob escapes.

‘How about that, Saul? What a girl, right? My angel. My sweet angel. My Franny.’ He squeezes my hand, weeping.

I know, because I know Guido, that no such call took place, but knowing that does not prevent me from being moved by his lie. I find his need to fabricate that phone call probably far more moving than if it had actually occurred as described.”

It is the drama of a man who is alone, abandoned, yearning for companionship, a hand that takes hold of his and caresses it. It is the image of many people’s worst nightmare: feeling and knowing that they are alone, without support, without companionship. Although it is common to identify with the fear of being alone, it can be extended to not having support, not having anyone that understands and accepts them. And its counterpart is evident: a desire (sometimes excessive) for security and perhaps connection, in the form of companionship, resources, or assurances.

The fear that we just described can create a personality marked by this yearning for security, which can even lead to a character that is by nature fearful, calculating, distrusting. We see this with people who, sort of analogous to the personality we described in the previous article, were greatly impacted by something in their childhood. Perhaps not as strong, but enough to instill the belief that they live in a hostile world, and therefore must be on the alert. Instead of reacting by seeking independence, they tend to instinctively look for something to latch onto (people, beliefs, institutions, ideologies) that they can trust and feel protected by.

We all have a need for security. We seek (consciously or unconsciously) anchors, people we can trust, ideas or beliefs that can be held as true. But someone with a very acute fear of this type does it on a much higher level. In that case, the belief that should be addressed (and, if possible, reconstructed) is that the world is naturally hostile, and that we should be always alert, on the defensive. This belief brings tension that is difficult to cope with, and can easily lead to a character that is generally friendly, but with explosive bouts of frustration or anxiety that are somewhat frequent and, at times, unexpected.

At the same time, that same person may be willing to go to the end of the earth with the person they love or trust. Or for the idea or belief they hold to be true. Like everything else, there are some exceptions, but this type of paradox happens: the most distrusting people can be the most loyal. This is precisely because their trust and loyalty are something they do not easily give out.

In “Game of Thrones”, a well-known series of novels whose television adaptation is attracting record audiences, has popularized the catch phrase of one of its leading families, the Starks: “Winter is coming.” Although it is a different line, from its most charismatic character, Ned Stark, that is especially apropos for the subject we are discussing: “A man can only be brave when he is afraid.” Amen.

A person accustomed to “being on guard” will surely tend to see everything that could go wrong in a situation. We all know someone who seems to be an expert at nitpicking any new initiative or innovative idea. And perhaps we are among those who have a somewhat critical view of that person as a real “stick-in-the-mud.” Maybe we should look deeper, and realize that they are not raising red flags because they enjoy throwing buckets of cold water at everyone; and that their brain is wired to be 100% thorough when it comes to detecting potential hazards. Maybe we have never considered that their contributions could be a real help if we start to see them through a different lens.

By exploring the deeply rooted fears that can shape our behavior, we often develop empathy for people that, until now, we did not understand very well. Likewise, this can happen to us with a person who by nature is friendly, but erupts like a volcano in the face of a minor change of plans or a harmless joke about the political party they vote for (to give trivial examples). Perhaps we are dealing with someone who, as we are seeing, has a hard time believing in something or someone, and needs more stability in their work than others to feel safe. Perhaps they are a fanatical person, but someone who believes in few things… and to disrupt those things is to bring out their deepest fear.

We see another example along these lines in the outstanding movie “The King’s Speech”. Just by watching the trailer we understand the evolution of the character of George V: In the two short minutes it lasts, we hear the character played by Geoffrey Rush describe the protagonist as someone who is “afraid of his own shadow” and moments later praise him as “the bravest man I know.” He is talking about the same character.

Anyone who has seen the film will know exactly what we mean: George V lives his life crippled by fear: of his father, of the responsibilities of the Crown, of foreign threats… fears that manifested as stuttering. But they hide much more than a simple speech impediment. His charismatic speech therapist wisely decides to combine diction techniques with “therapy” sessions, which are essentially intended to get to the source of his fear. And, as so often is the case, his fears date back to his childhood.

The example in this movie is excellent, because it shows the complete evolution of a man who goes from being “afraid of his own shadow” to becoming the inspiration of England as the country heads into the Second World War. It’s the difference between a man subconsciously enslaved by fear and a man freed from that burden. He shows us how to go about overcoming such a fear: by having someone who can help him to see himself through a different lens; and understand that his lack of self-esteem and confidence is his own decision, not something logical.