The Gift of Dread 

(Existential Alley)

It’s now been a quarter century since Gavin de Becker first published The Gift of Fear. I admit I never have gotten around to reading the book, but my wife did many years ago and found it valuable. Other psychologists have spent a good deal of ink addressing irrational fear. From what I’ve gathered, de Becker was not writing at all in defense of irrational fear, but his subject might’ve been something more like pre-rational fear, which he encouraged us to pay attention to and use it to help keep ourselves “reasonably” safe when encountering strangers and navigating unfamiliar territory. That feeling of fear we might be experiencing at such times is not exactly rational, yet de Becker was encouraging us to treat that fear rationally.

What I am wondering about here is a somewhat related sensation I encounter from time to time which I have begun to name as “dread”. Others might be tempted to translate “existential angst”, but I have my doubts whether it is necessarily the same. In my own case, this dread manifests as a kind of burning feeling directly behind my lower sternum. It may be triggered when something suddenly goes “wrong”, often something as simple as losing something that is actually easily replaced, but more often it is prompted by a sudden break in an important relationship. However I have also had the experience of that feeling descending, it seems, from nowhere discernable.

To my mind, the main difference between fear and dread is that fear tends to be about something that might happen, whereas dread is more often about something that has happened or is happening. For this reason I would assert that most fear is irrational in the sense that some of us humans have a penchant for imagining worst case scenarios that never come about. Dread, in the sense that I am trying to communicate here, would seldom be inherently irrational, except that I suspect the feeling is out of proportion to any given situation which might be prompting it.

This brings up a gift that fear offers that I don’t believe de Becker touched on. It is true that this pre-rational fear may well serve to keep us out of serious trouble, as we learn in the book, but there is also the fact that without fear, whether rational or not, that most noble of human virtues, courage, would be quite impossible. This gift of fear may have somewhat of a corollary with our feelings of dread. If you can identify at all with the “dread center” I described, somewhere behind the sternum, perhaps you have also experienced a “joy” or even “ecstasy” center. I find that center, usually, in the same general area as my dread center. If no joy center comes immediately to mind for you, try to remember all the way back to lying in bed on Christmas Eve, or whichever annual celebratory event in your young experience that prompted intense anticipation, like a trip to Disneyland or the return of an absent parent. The dread I speak of evokes similar intense anticipation, except that it apparently anticipates some worst case scenario that I have not the imagination to consciously conjure. It is this very shortfall of imagination that hints to me of hidden gold beneath my momentary dread.

Courage does not live beyond the bounds of imagination, for our very fears have already fired our imagination with one or more worst case scenario, yet courage gives us the will to forge ahead anyway. What, then, I ask myself, is the corollary to dread which lives beyond my imagination? 

I had the experience at the age of four of being severely scalded down my back. The experience was horrific enough, yet it was tempered by the common human experience of “going into shock”. When we reach the limits of human sensory experience our sensibilities protect themselves from permanent damage by automatically shutting down. I suspect the same phenomenon occurs beyond the limits of human ecstasy. Could it be something like this experience which induces some to create an artificial drug-induced experience at the opposite end of whatever they might be experiencing or fearing at the dread end of the continuum? Why do so many of us literally risk our very lives as we willingly pursue such an escape?

How many mystics through the ages have hinted at wonders experienced for which they could find no words? And even then, the experience hinted at is suspected of being itself, little more than a hint beyond the mystic’s own ability to imagine, just as the patriarch closed his eyes as God’s Spirit passed, lest he look on the divine face and fall dead. 

Could it be that my sensations of dread actually expand my capacity to anticipate an unimaginable joy, perhaps even, someday, to experience unimaginable happiness face to face?