Karen Thompson Walker: What's The Difference Between Rational and Irrational Fears? Through the story of the whale ship Essex, novelist Karen Thompson Walker describes how our most vivid fears are often not the most realistic.

Karen Thompson Walker: What's The Difference Between Rational and Irrational Fears?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/312543253/314895610" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's the TED radio hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today - ideas about fear. For the novelist Karen Thompson Walker, it's all a matter of what we learn from it because fear...

KAREN THOMPSON WALKER: ...Comes to you as sort of a fully formed story.

RAZ: There's a story that Karen was thinking about right after that horrible earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia in 2004. She came across an article that mentioned the force of that earthquake, and it was so powerful...

WALKER: ...That it had affected the rotation of the earth. And I remember I've had sort of a creepy fearful feeling in that moment, you know, the idea that something I had always taken for granted as stable and steady and predictable - the idea that that was in flux, it sort of scared me for a moment. And rather than just imagining all the frightening consequences in our real world, I started to imagine, you know, what if I wrote a story.

RAZ: And that was how she came up with the idea for her novel, "Age Of Miracles" which is about a family that wakes up one morning, and on that morning, the Earth's rotation has suddenly slowed down.

WALKER: I tend to have both an interest in and a fear of, you know, catastrophe which is why I write about it so much. A certain kind of fear has always been part of my life. You know, ever since I was a child I feel like I was the one who was quick to kind of imagine disaster. You know? I grew up in California, so I earthquake's - that was a big fear of mine. You know, what would happen if an earthquake struck in the middle of the night?

RAZ: Yeah. I grew up in California, too, and I totally remember that feeling. We had a bunk bed, and my little brother slept underneath and I slept on top. And I was constantly waking up at night, like, worrying about, you know, what - if it there was an earthquake the - like, the top bunk would collapse on my brother and crush him to death.

WALKER: Oh no. See, fears can be so vivid and specific. You know?

RAZ: Yeah. Like, I fear flying. I hate flying.

WALKER: Me too.

RAZ: I get so scared when I fly.

WALKER: One of my most vivid fears is being on a plane imagining it crashing. And that's one that actually, you know, that's something that's a kind of an unlikely scenario that something bad would happen on a plane. But it's the most vivid. You can sort of see the story unfolding. There's something about that vividness that can kind of obsess the mind, at least my mind.

RAZ: So when Karen stepped onto the TED stage, she opened up with a story that happened nearly 200 years ago. And it's a story about, well, catastrophe and fear.


WALKER: One day, in 1819, 3,000 miles off the coast of Chile in one of the most remote regions of the Pacific Ocean, 20 American sailors watched their ship flood with sea water. They'd been struck by a sperm whale which had ripped a catastrophic hole in the ship's hull.

As their ship began to sink beneath the swells, the men huddled together in three small whale boats. These men were 10,000 miles from home and more than thousands miles from the nearest scrap of land. In their small boats, they carried only rudimentary navigational equipment and limited supplies of food and water. These were the men of the whaleship Essex, whose story would later inspire parts of Moby Dick.

So most of us have never experienced a situation as frightening as the one in which these sailors found themselves. But we all know what it's like to be afraid. We know how fear years, but I'm not sure we spend enough time thinking about what our fears mean. As we grow up, we're often encouraged to think of fear as a weakness, just another childish thing to discard, like baby teeth or roller skates. So maybe that's why we think of fear, sometimes, as a danger in and of itself. Fear is something we conquer. It's something we fight, something we overcome. But what if we looked at fear in a fresh way? What if we thought of fear as an amazing act of the imagination? Something that can be as profound and insightful as storytelling itself.

But let's return to the year 1819 for a moment, to the situation facing the crew of the whaleship Essex. Let's take a look at the fears that their imaginations were generating as they drifted in the middle of the Pacific. Twenty four hours had now passed since the capsizing of the chip. The time had come for the men to make a plan, but they had very few options. The men knew that the nearest islands they could reach with the Marquesas Islands, 1,200 miles away. But they'd heard some frightening rumors. They'd been told that these islands and several others nearby were populated by cannibals.

So the men pictured coming ashore only to be murdered and eaten for dinner. Another possible destination was Hawaii. But given the season, the captain was afraid they'd be struck by severe storms. Now, the last option was the longest and the most difficult - to sail 1,500 miles due south in hopes of reaching a certain band of winds that could eventually push them toward the coast of South America. But they knew that the sheer length of this journey would stretch their supplies of food and water. To be eaten by cannibals, to be battered by storms, to starve to death before reaching land - these were the fears that danced in the imaginations of these poor men. And as it turned out, the fear they chose to listen to would govern whether they lived or died.

It's that moment of decision when these men had to make a decision about, you know, which way would give them the best chance of survival. And it's that moment of choosing between these competing options and, in a way, each one with its own risks and associated fears. It's that moment that kind of fascinates me the most about the story.

RAZ: So what's happening in our minds when our fears turn into stories?

WALKER: Well, I think it happens kind of unintentionally. I think fear is itself kind of subconscious or unconscious form of storytelling, you know, so it has the same architecture. So there's a beginning and a middle and an end, you know, which in the end is bad. You know, say you hear a noise in the house and then you think someone might - you know, some sort of intruder has come into the house. And soon they're going to come into your room. And you don't have to do anything, you're sort of receiving the story. It just comes to us kind of subconsciously.


WALKER: Our fears also tend to contain imagery that can be every bit as vivid as what you might find in the pages of a novel. Picture a cannibal - human teeth sinking into human skin, human flesh roasting over a fire. Just like all great stories, our fears focus our attention on a question that is as important in life as it is in literature - what will happen next? So if we think of our fears as more than just fears but as stories, we should think of ourselves as the authors of those stories. But just as importantly, we need to think of ourselves as the readers of our fears. And how we choose to read our fears can have a profound affect on our lives.

RAZ: Do you think we need it?


RAZ: Yeah.

WALKER: Oh, I think we definitely need it. You know, in those rare times when you do face a life or death situation than fear is essential. I mean, that's your best chance to survive a terrible situation because, you know, it makes you think very quickly about the possible scenarios and hopefully make a quick decision. Yeah, I think it's definitely a necessary part of human life. And it also keeps us from taking unnecessary or reckless risks. You know, you need to have that built-in fear of consequences.


WALKER: So how can we tell the difference between the fears worth listening to and all the others? I think the end of the story of the whaleship Essex offers an illuminating, if tragic, example. After much deliberation, the men finally made a decision. Terrified of cannibals, they decided to forgo the closest islands and instead embarked on the longer and much more difficult route to South America. After more than two months at sea, the men ran out of food. When the last of survivors were finally picked up by two passing ships, less than half of the men were left alive.

And some of them had resorted to their own form of cannibalism. So the question is - why did these men dread cannibals so much more than the extreme likelihood of starvation? The novelist Vladimir Nabokov said that the best reader has a combination of two very different temperaments - the artistic and the scientific. As we've seen, the men of the Essex had no trouble with the artistic part. They dreamed up a variety of horrifying scenarios. The problem was of all the narratives their fears wrote, they responded only to the most lurid, the most vivid, the one that was easiest for their imaginations to picture - cannibals. But perhaps if they'd been able to read their fears more like a scientist, with more coolness of judgment, they would have listened instead to the less violent but the more likely tale - the story of starvation.

And maybe if we all tried to read our fears, we too would be less often swayed by the most salacious among them. Maybe then we'd spend less time worrying about serial killers and plane crashes and more time concerned with the subtler and slower disasters we face - the silent buildup of plaque in arteries, the gradual changes in our climate. Read in the right way, our fears are an amazing gift of the imagination, a kind of everyday clairvoyance.

A way of glimpsing what might be the future when there's still time to influence how that future will play out. Properly read, our fears can offer us something as precious as our favorite works of literature. A little wisdom, a bit of insight and a version of that most elusive thing - the truth. Thank you.


RAZ: Karen Thompson Walker, her talk is called What Fear Can Teach Us. Check it out at ted.npr.org.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.