When I teach composition, I forbid my students from beginning their papers with dictionary definitions of courage or rebellion, and in the spirit of that, I will not begin this essay by defining irrational. We know what it means and we know it when we see it. Consider this: logically, we are aware that bed sheets will not prevent that imagined, nightmarish, phantom blade from slicing off our toes, and yet there are those among us who never let their feet hang off the bed uncovered, at least not consciously.
Just as with taste, there is no accounting for fear. What seems innocuous or even desirable to some can cause a series of adverse reactions in others, from increased heart rate and sweating to full-blown, crippling panic attacks. When we confess a fear to someone who, in reply, tries not to laugh, we know our fear is one that can be perceived as irrational. After all, if a fear is founded, it isn’t irrational. A fear of snakes (ophidiophobia) shouldn’t be classified as a phobia, since it is perfectly rational to be afraid of snakes.
Author David Sedaris has written about the difference between not liking something and actually being terrified of it in his book Me Talk Pretty One Day. He explains how people assume he has a “phobia” of technology (technophobia, cyberphobia, or logizomechanophobia, perhaps); they don’t understand that he isn’t afraid—he just doesn’t like it! I hate possums (although, oddly, I haven’t been able to find a name for this), and seeing them makes me decidedly uncomfortable, but I do not obsess about possums or the possibility of possums every time I am outside my house. I do not have a gate around my bed to deter possum intruders. When I go camping I do not bring homemade grenades to thwart any visiting possums that might drop by to see what I’m up to.
A woman who finds herself attracted to clean-shaven men rather than their more hirsute counterparts is not the same as someone suffering from pogonophobia (fear of beards). The latter, according to supposedly true accounts I have read, could experience extreme panic and exhibit physical manifestations of fear that would prevent her from being near anyone with a beard (would that include Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes?), ranging from chest pains and difficulty breathing to full panic and loss of consciousness.
I asked around for my friends’ phobias and came back with myriad answers ranging from the mundane, the inexplicable, and even the truly bizarre. Dentists and public speaking are among the most often cited phobias (dentophobia and glossophobia, respectively), but let us not forget about black cats (melanophobia is the fear of the color black, while ailurophiles fear our feline friends), birds (ornithophobia), bugs (entomophobia), spiders (arachnophobia—am I the only person who read Charlotte’s Web?), sharks (selachophobia), open-toed shoes, decision-making (decidophobia), and encountering spoiled milk. This question may perhaps have revealed more than I needed to know about my circle of friends, but who are we to decide what is rational?
Sarah P. lives in Minnesota and is secretly terrified that she will drive into one of the many lakes in her state and be trapped in her car. Sure, you could argue this is a scenario anyone would hope to avoid, not unlike contracting syphilis (the fear of which is termed luiphobia) or the fear of being infested with worms (known as helminthophobia). Yet while most people would not let their general distaste for an undesirable situation interfere with their lives, Sarah has let hers inform and influence her choice of cars (no power windows or locks for her!). Furthermore, she longs for “a tool for [my] car that will supposedly puncture an air bag and break a car window.”
Often, those afflicted with phobias considered irrational become hyperaware of how they are viewed. For instance, when asked about such phobias, the poetic Gene T. explained, “As superstitions speak a mythos symbolic of our deeper and vaster communal sub-awareness, black cats rule my life. I have crossed streets, turned around, and shuddered at the coincidental prescience of it all when one darts out to cut my blessed path. Pussy cats!” It should be noted here that Gene shares an apartment with two very charming and good-natured brown tabbies that have been with him and his wife since kittenhood, and while the cats enjoy free reign of the bookshelves and tabletops, they are not permitted in the bedroom at night. Although Gene tries to pretend this is due to lofty ideas about personal boundaries and having private space, a USA Today survey shows that nearly 80 percent of American pet owners allow their pets to sleep in bed with them at night. If a pattern of behavior goes against the actions of the clear majority, should it perhaps be considered irrational?
Could genetics and environment play a role in the developments of phobias? Lynn H. is terrified of birds, while her older sister harbors the same feeling towards fish. Are irrational fears that begin in childhood something we are simply expected to grow out of, like playing with dolls or picking our noses? As a child, Julia B. was so convinced that toilets were actually “portals to hell” from which witches would fly at the sound of a satisfied flush that she wasn’t toilet-trained until she was four. True, she grew out of this irrational fear, but it must have caused much turmoil during those formative years.
Are so many people afraid of infinity that a name must be bestowed upon it (apeirophobia, by the way)? What about blennophobia (the fear of slime), geniophobia (the fear of chins), ithyphallophobia (the fear of seeing, thinking about, or having an erect penis), and those poor venustraphobes who cower from beautiful women? Something about these phobias and the individual name of each seems to speak to an American ingenuity, the notion that every fear can be named and recognized, given equal shrift, so to speak, and included with all the others. We are a nation of egalitarian phobics.
Perhaps we can ultimately trace these reactions and phobias back to one deceptively simplistic problem: loss of control. We cannot control our lives, our surroundings, or people around us. We cannot assure ourselves that we matter, that our desires and needs affect anything outside ourselves. Nothing is certain. But there is one thing we can control, to varying degrees: our exposure to things we don’t like. Therein may lie the secret source of so many seemingly irrational fears.
Note: thanks to The Phobia List for providing the names of the phobias mentioned in this essay.
Copyright 2005, Erica Bernheim
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