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  • Translator: Morton Bast Reviewer: Thu-Huong Ha

  • 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 seawater.

  • 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 whaleboats.

  • These men were 10,000 miles from home,

  • more than 1,000 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."

  • Even in today's world, their situation would be really dire,

  • but think about how much worse it would have been then.

  • No one on land had any idea that anything had gone wrong.

  • No search party was coming to look for these men.

  • 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 feels,

  • 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.

  • And I think it's no accident that we think this way.

  • Neuroscientists have actually shown that human beings

  • are hard-wired to be optimists.

  • So maybe that's why we think of fear, sometimes,

  • as a danger in and of itself.

  • "Don't worry," we like to say to one another. "Don't panic."

  • In English, fear is something we conquer.

  • It's something we fight. It's 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?

  • It's easiest to see this link between fear and the imagination

  • in young children, whose fears are often extraordinarily vivid.

  • When I was a child, I lived in California,

  • which is, you know, mostly a very nice place to live,

  • but for me as a child, California could also be a little scary.

  • I remember how frightening it was to see the chandelier

  • that hung above our dining table swing back and forth

  • during every minor earthquake,

  • and I sometimes couldn't sleep at night, terrified

  • that the Big One might strike while we were sleeping.

  • And what we say about kids who have fears like that

  • is that they have a vivid imagination.

  • But at a certain point, most of us learn

  • to leave these kinds of visions behind and grow up.

  • We learn that there are no monsters hiding under the bed,

  • and not every earthquake brings buildings down.

  • But maybe it's no coincidence that some of our most creative minds

  • fail to leave these kinds of fears behind as adults.

  • The same incredible imaginations that produced "The Origin of Species,"

  • "Jane Eyre" and "The Remembrance of Things Past,"

  • also generated intense worries that haunted the adult lives

  • of Charles Darwin, Charlotte BrontĂŤ and Marcel Proust.

  • So the question is, what can the rest of us learn about fear

  • from visionaries and young children?

  • Well 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 ship.

  • The time had come for the men to make a plan,

  • but they had very few options.

  • In his fascinating account of the disaster,

  • Nathaniel Philbrick wrote that these men were just about

  • as far from land as it was possible to be anywhere on Earth.

  • The men knew that the nearest islands they could reach

  • were 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.

  • Now we might just as easily call these fears by a different name.

  • What if instead of calling them fears,

  • we called them stories?

  • Because that's really what fear is, if you think about it.

  • It's a kind of unintentional storytelling

  • that we are all born knowing how to do.

  • And fears and storytelling have the same components.

  • They have the same architecture.

  • Like all stories, fears have characters.

  • In our fears, the characters are us.

  • Fears also have plots. They have beginnings and middles and ends.

  • You board the plane. The plane takes off. The engine fails.

  • 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.

  • Fears also have suspense.

  • If I've done my job as a storyteller today,

  • you should be wondering what happened

  • to the men of the whaleship Essex.

  • Our fears provoke in us a very similar form of suspense.

  • 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?

  • In other words, our fears make us think about the future.

  • And humans, by the way, are the only creatures capable

  • of thinking about the future in this way,

  • of projecting ourselves forward in time,

  • and this mental time travel is just one more thing

  • that fears have in common with storytelling.

  • As a writer, I can tell you that a big part of writing fiction

  • is learning to predict how one event in a story

  • will affect all the other events,

  • and fear works in that same way.

  • In fear, just like in fiction, one thing always leads to another.

  • When I was writing my first novel, "The Age Of Miracles,"

  • I spent months trying to figure out what would happen

  • if the rotation of the Earth suddenly began to slow down.

  • What would happen to our days? What would happen to our crops?

  • What would happen to our minds?

  • And then it was only later that I realized how very similar

  • these questions were to the ones I used to ask myself

  • as a child frightened in the night.

  • If an earthquake strikes tonight, I used to worry,

  • what will happen to our house? What will happen to my family?

  • And the answer to those questions always took the form of a story.

  • 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 effect on our lives.

  • Now, some of us naturally read our fears more closely than others.

  • I read about a study recently of successful entrepreneurs,

  • and the author found that these people shared a habit

  • that he called "productive paranoia," which meant that

  • these people, instead of dismissing their fears,

  • these people read them closely, they studied them,

  • and then they translated that fear into preparation and action.

  • So that way, if their worst fears came true,

  • their businesses were ready.

  • And sometimes, of course, our worst fears do come true.

  • That's one of the things that is so extraordinary about fear.

  • Once in a while, our fears can predict the future.

  • But we can't possibly prepare for all of the fears

  • that our imaginations concoct.

  • 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

  • as they knew they might,

  • and they were still quite far from land.

  • When the last of the 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.

  • Herman Melville, who used this story as research for "Moby Dick,"

  • wrote years later, and from dry land, quote,

  • "All the sufferings of these miserable men of the Essex

  • might in all human probability have been avoided

  • had they, immediately after leaving the wreck,

  • steered straight for Tahiti.

  • But," as Melville put it, "they dreaded cannibals."

  • So the question is, why did these men dread cannibals

  • so much more than the extreme likelihood of starvation?

  • Why were they swayed by one story

  • so much more than the other?

  • Looked at from this angle,

  • theirs becomes a story about reading.

  • The novelist Vladimir Nabokov said that the best reader

  • has a combination of two very different temperaments,

  • the artistic and the scientific.

  • A good reader has an artist's passion,

  • a willingness to get caught up in the story,

  • but just as importantly, the readers also needs

  • the coolness of judgment of a scientist,

  • which acts to temper and complicate

  • the reader's intuitive reactions to the story.

  • 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 that they listened to the wrong story.

  • 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 headed for Tahiti, just as Melville's sad commentary suggests.

  • 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 our arteries,

  • the gradual changes in our climate.

  • Just as the most nuanced stories in literature are often the richest,

  • so too might our subtlest fears be the truest.

  • 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. (Applause)

Translator: Morton Bast Reviewer: Thu-Huong Ha

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【TED】Karen Thompson Walker: What fear can teach us (What fear can teach us | Karen Thompson Walker)

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