When we are in fear, we often have a strong impulse to escape, to run away from the situation that is challenging us in order to feel safer. This drive can be a sane one, in the case of a much needed vacation to the beach, or a less beneficial one, such as the repeated choice to inebriate ourselves with drugs, alcohol, or other addictions like television.
When we take flight, we must know where we are going, otherwise we will not know when we have arrived. This is a fundamental flaw in the escape instinct. We do not usually plan where the escape is taking us, nor do we consider the consequential side-effects of our chosen path of retreat. The costs are often steps backward, in the opposite direction of where we ultimately want to go with our lives. Further, when we are in the escape mode, we feel a sense of powerlessness to confront and resolve whatever we are running from.
The impulse to escape from challenges tends to lead us to the path of least resistance in life. We choose the experiences that do not provoke our fear, and thus the experiences that we have from day to day are not the kind that expand us. We therefore keep our living personas the same as they were yesterday, last year, and ten years ago. This state of stagnation is not due to our fear directly, it comes as a result of our preemptive avoidance of challenge.
William James spoke of our aversion to bitter tastes in this way. He pointed out that when we taste something bitter, we make a fairly stereotypical facial expression. When the same item is presented to us again at a later time, we make the same facial expression as we turn away, even though we have not yet tasted the food again. It is this tendency that leads us away from danger, at the expense of the new possibility. We may actually enjoy this thing that we once avoided. We are not the same people we were, and the past need not be the future. If we dare to “taste” the experiences that once provoked our fear-aversion in the past, we open the door for something new to happen; we can expand who we are. By overcoming our fears in this way, one by one, we live with less and less fear in our lives. Further, our relationship to fear changes from one of instinctive avoidance, to one of curiosity and zeal for life that draws us forward into new experiences.