Caution is one of the first lessons we learn growing up, and we learn it a hundred different ways: don’t eat strange things, don’t put your hand on a hot stove, don’t take gifts from strangers. Some kids are naturally more daring or reckless than others, but we all learn a certain amount of respect for practical discretion. As we get older, we carry that lesson forward and there’s a sort of unspoken social expectation that all else being equal, the cautious route is also the wiser one. Now, if I ask you whether the cautious thing is always the right thing, you can see whether that question is headed and you’d probably say “no.” But in practice, it’s hard to find those moments for utilizing the valorous part of valor—and maybe that’s because caution can be an awfully convenient excuse.
Now, as you are reading this, maybe you are a naturally cautious person, and maybe you’re not. It doesn’t really matter, though, because anyone will tend to cautious when something frightens them, and that’s the conflict I want to talk about today. The fact is, there’s a big difference between the caution driven by experience and wisdom, and the caution driven by fear.
Imagine that you’re walking through the woods when a bear suddenly emerges from the trees ahead of you. What happens? I’m sure you’ve heard of the fight-or-flight mentality, but properly it should be fight-or-flight-or-freeze. At least initially, most of us would probably freeze in our tracks out of fear, right? Now imagine that you have a survival expert there with you. This expert knows that picking a fight with the bear is obviously a bad idea, and that turning to run would only make them look like prey—so they stand their ground and project confidant body-language. (Disclaimer: I am not a wilderness expert. Do not attempt this.)
On the surface, it seems like there’s no difference between you and the expert, right? Except that there is a difference between freezing and choosing to be still, between hesitation and waiting. In the first case, you are tense and rigid, unable to make a true choice. In the second, you are relaxed—at least comparatively—and able to act or react as the situation demands.
The trick is that since they look similar on the surface, it’s easy to get into a habit of allowing yourself to freeze and then justifying it as cautious behavior. But while you may avoid some risks in the short term that way, falling into this rut prevents you from learning or adapting, and eventually leads you to stagnation.
Fear is the giveaway. Physiologically speaking, fear stresses our bodies, causing us tension and anxiety. Next time you’re confronted by a risk, quickly take stock of your body’s physical responses. If you feel tense or rigid, it’s a sign that fear is playing a major part in your decision-making, and that knowledge will make it easier for you to make real, informed choices.
Have a blessed, wonderful day!
Dr. Alex Loyd