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Chapter 5 — INTERLUDE
2. About Fear

In my story of the war between China and Japan there are references to fear: a subject that gives one cause for thought.

Why should we who know first-hand what fear is leave the subject so entirely in the hands of the neurologists who, as a matter of probability, only know it as an entomologist knows a beetle? So let me, who have experienced fear in several forms, say what I think about it. But let the limitation of the individual first be noted. He knows his own experiences but no others.

As with the expert, the others are mere beetles, wriggling perhaps on their transfixing pins and inarticulate. Regarding these the expert generalizes from outward signs, while we, the less learned, can view them with the inner light of sympathy.

Is fear something to be ashamed of? If so, then all those tens of thousands who died heroically in the World War, had cause for shame; or nearly all, for there are some few exceptions who seem to lack the sense and probably lack something else. No. Fear in danger is quite normal; it is an inheritance from those ages when to flee from danger was a thing of course, and in those early days it was not conscious fear; it was a tropism — a mechanical reaction to a stimulus, and so, in bad cases, it remains. In these the primitive reaction rules, and in all of us it operates to some extent. For, think, is fear a matter of the mind or is it something physical? The mind of course indicates the danger and possibly exaggerates it; but it is not the knowledge of danger that constitutes fear but what happens consequently in the body. It is the physical, and not the mental, factor that causes inhibitions. In sudden instant danger there is that frond-like growth of creeping chill, commencing at the tail and extending to the shoulders, and to the hair roots. Its occurrence seems independent of the magnitude of danger. It may occur from the sudden snarl of a dog behind one; from a supposed burglar in the dark, when your wife has sent you down to investigate a noise; or when defenceless from the bayonet of your enemy.

Its quality and even its degree is much about the same in all these cases.

There may be, whether in sudden danger or danger long sustained, actual paralysis, an atavism of another kind to that already mentioned and having its origin, perhaps, in the hypnotic influence of the prehistoric snake. Most of you, it is likely, remember a childhood's dream of coming down the staircase and seeing in the hall a burglar with a knife, and how he crept towards you and you could not scream or turn and run; your feet were turned to lead and refused to lift. Perhaps you did not wake before he caught you and slowly pushed the knife into you, and you heard the gristle cut; and if you were a boy you kept this dream a secret, for you feared it showed you were a coward.

There is another kind of fear that is harder to describe — that low, sinking feeling in the stomach, which goes with general but not immediate apprehension. Thus one feels about the doubtful issue of the sickness of one's child; thus one stricken with the impotence of a nervous malady, with a career prematurely broken, feels; thus, too, one can imagine, feels the prisoner waiting for his execution.

In all these cases, and the others mentioned, the distress is chiefly physical. The mind but takes cognizance of the senses. And the cause, where lies it? In the mind or in the body? Of course, in both and curiously intermixed, as in a toothache, when a house on fire will cure it.

Be master of your soul.' How often does one see this smug complacent statement. With equal non-sense might one say, ' Be master of your blood; don't get consumption.' The will can do a lot, of course, and faith really can work miracles; but the will may be diseased as may be the blood and tissues.

One hears contemptuously of malades imaginaires, when the right term is a disease of the imagination — a disease as real as any other, but much more difficult to cure. So the poor wretches who suffer from inhibitory fears are no more to blame than if they had consumption; and for relief from the cruel stigma which formerly attached to them they have the neurologists to thank.

Yet there are fears that are obscene — those that result in scheming for security by the sacrifice of others, even where the security is only temporary. And there are fears whose chief feature is their foolishness — the immediate avoidance of a lesser danger at the certain cost of a greater later one — an example this of tropism.

But, kept to the last, is another fear. It is a glorious fear, under which the stress of apprehension produces inspiration from the subconscious mind, which takes control and guides, and this feeling is one of great exhilaration.

So do not mix up fear with cowardice. Fear may inspire or inhibit, with a gamut of reactions in between. Above all, the fear of fear — that complex thing — is a stimulus to bravery.

That word slipped in by accident. We who know fear do not think of bravery, we think in terms of cowardice or the absence of it. If we can master cowardice we are well content and make no higher claim. To us bravery — at all events as applied to ourselves — is usually not a positive so much as a negative condition. Yet undoubtedly there is something more. The gratuitous incurring of a risk to save another is something positive, not negative. Its source is also inspiration — from an ideal; and equally it is the subconscious mind that prompts and guides.

But on the whole it can be safely said that the great bulk of the World War's daring deeds — that untold number — were partly due to fear, either from the fear of fear, the inspiration of it or the desperation of it, and the fact adds largely to the heroism of the deeds. Mixed with the fear and forming with it an amalgam of stimulus, were pride of race, love of country, the spirit of adventure and many such incentives.

The subject here is fear. Perhaps too much is claimed for it as a factor in daring deeds. The sole object is to emphasize the fact that we need not be ashamed of it.

But I have still an example of fear differing in kind from those hitherto described. It happened later in my life but its place seems here.

I was travelling in Japan — a typhoid convalescent — and my train was skirting the inland sea with mountains close to on the other side. It had been raining heavily for days and the mountain streams were torrents. The train stopped at a wayside station, and we were told there was a wash-out that would take several days to mend. We could either return to Shimonoseki or put up in the village at the Company's expense.

And then a Japanese passenger accosted me. He was an inspecting engineer of the railway; he intended to walk along the line to the next station, distant some five miles or so, and invited me to join him. I did so gladly.

It was growing dusk, but the rain had ceased except for a fine drizzle. Soon we saw the naphtha flares of the working party at the wash-out, and I wondered how we should cross.

We did so by a rope bridge — a very wobbly affair, but nothing to complain about by one who had been a sailor in his youth; yet I felt relieved, in view of my poor condition, at this possible difficulty being past. The single line was embanked and we walked in file from sleeper to sleeper, and in silence. Then after a mile or two I heard the rumbling of broken water, and in due course there lay in front of us a lofty wooden trestle bridge some 800 feet long, spanning a raging torrent in a sunken course. Between the rails there ran a line of plank only ten inches wide — in Japan everything is small; otherwise the bridge was but a skeleton. I thought my friend would stop and discuss the crossing, but no, he marched on to that plank without a word. A moment's hesitation on my part and I shed my mackintosh, and with that in one hand and my umbrella, opened, in the other, I also stepped that plank as if it were a tight-rope. I did it quite unhappily, for the bridge quivered strongly; but I think my feeling of resentment at being let in for this unkind experience tended to shut out actual fear. At all events, I crossed without material difficulty.

My companion, who had gained somewhat on me, waited at the end. ` I didn't like that at all; I hope you have no more luxuries of the kind for me.' He looked at me with no expression, then turned and walked along the line without a word; and I knew that there was something more.

The dusk was gone. It was now dark and the sky heavily overcast as we trudged along the line, and all the time my ears were cocked for the rumble of another torrent. Then came that rumble and a bridge head; and now at last he spoke. I very sorry. This not my district. I forgot this damn bifurcated river. I must cross. You better try too.'

It was now very dark. Some distance on the plank caught such light as there was and showed a ghostly streak, but underfoot it was invisible and I had to kneel to feel the width, the same meagre ten inches. The loom of the trees on the other bank was faintly visible; otherwise blank darkness, and the river roared, and I knew that the bridge quivered and violently in the centre.

I thought of crawling on hands and knees, and tried it tentatively; but it was quite impossible, the knees would never stand it. To straddle and jerk across was equally impossible, with sleepers in the way. It was walk or nothing.

And then I spoke: ` Try to cross ! Try be damned. I am not a blasted mountain goat like you. It's not that I'm afraid ' — I lied — ' it is that my legs would not do what I tell them.'

` Again I very sorry; but think; country flooded everywhere; no houses; no can go back; bridge there too; rain all night and cold; make you sick. You Englishman; more better try.'

The predicament was rotten. On the one hand, to be wet and cold the whole night long, possessed moreover by a sense of ignominy; and on the other a very poisonous risk. I feared paralysis, for once before when there was no risk of life my legs gave out from vertigo because I was not fit. It seemed a toss up which was the lesser evil, which was the lesser fear; the fear of trying to cross, plus the apparent foolishness of doing so; or the fear of self-respect. It reduced itself to that. I was still in painful doubt, when there jumped to my mind a story of a piece of string and how it gave confidence to a follower in some Alpine risk. With it came decision.

` Hold the end of my umbrella in your armpit and I will follow you '; and so we trod that plank. My effort was to think of other things — or rather of persons, not things — of my people and my best girl and what they might be doing. And every time my foot came down on that unseen plank. I became automatous with a realization at the back of my mind that it made for safety, and that the chance was good. Then, when we were about in the middle of the bridge, my leader stumbled and stopped, giving my arm a nasty jerk, though he still retained the umbrella end. — ' Take care, a loose plank; I hit the butt-end. I nearly fell.' Then a pause, and I could hear him panting from the shock. This standing still was much worse than walking, and I thought of the stability of a bicycle. And then he said: ` I no like this at all, and now I remember construction train may come at any time; we better hurry up.' So we started off again. But now the feeling of being an automaton had gone; I became conscious of my feet or rather conscious of a kind of unconsciousness about them, and then it happened. I stepped off the plank and fell; and as I fell I clutched the plank, my arms and chin were on it and one foot had found a lodging on a cross timber of the bridge. Now comes the curious feature of this adventure.

One might well think that the shock of the fall would have unnerved me. It did not. Before the fall I had been in a blue funk; but as I hung on that plank and realized how I had been saved from the torrent underneath, the fact exhilarated me. I clambered up assisted by my friend — he still had the umbrella — and I walked the other half of the bridge without a squirm. But I dreamt of that bridge for many nights.