Living with Fear

Fear is a universal emotion.  Every person alive is afraid of something. It’s what we do next that matters most.

Fear can be a motivator. It drives us to meet our goals. But too much fear can overwhelm us, paralyzing our emotional and physical responses.  As a person who has experienced both these effects of fear, I wanted to know how other people managed their responses to fear.

I’m a history buff so I looked for historical examples. An excellent study in fear is provided by the men and women who were in the French Resistance in World War II.  Every Nazi-occupied country had resistance movements, of course. But the French are notable for their tradition of writing books about their political activities. As a result, the survivors of the French Resistance were more likely to write about their experiences than resisters in other European countries.

What a life they lived! Living in occupied France meant living with fear. The Gestapo could stop any person at any time and demand to see their identity papers. Resistance workers knew if they were detained in one of these street sweeps, their forged identity papers would probably not withstand scrutiny. Or their forged identity might already have been revealed by a tortured colleague or a collaborator. In either case, it meant their worst fear would come true; they would be arrested.

Another quick path to arrest was violating the nightly curfew.  Resistance workers constantly broke curfew to travel to rendezvous sites to retrieve supplies flown in on moonless nights. They also conducted most radio communications with their leaders in London at night. Resistance workers caught at rendezvous sites or with a radio could be shot “resisting arrest” or arrested and taken in for interrogation.

Interrogation meant torture and probable death. Resistance workers were tortured in an effort to make them name names since the Gestapo was attempting to wipe out all resistance efforts.  The standard rule for Resistance workers was that they should hold out for at least 48 hours under torture to allow other Resistance workers to move to new, unknown locations.

Many Resistance members died due to the torture. If they didn’t die while being tortured, they were sent to prison in France to await deportation to a concentration camp.  Resistance workers were not covered by The Hague or Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of war. They were not legally soldiers. They were legally defined as spies, criminals, or “enemy combatants”.  That meant they could be tortured, starved, murdered, or used as slave laborers.

Resistance activities could be deadly for a worker’s family. If the Gestapo knew or suspected the true identity of a Resistance worker, they would arrest family members of the Resistance worker.  Family members could be tortured, imprisoned, murdered, or deported to a death camp in retaliation for the Resistance worker’s activities.  Resistance workers knew they were jeopardizing the lives of their loved ones and this knowledge caused their greatest fear.

French Resistance workers lived with overwhelming fear that left psychological scars for the rest of their lives.  So why would anyone choose to join the Resistance when they could have kept their heads down and sat out the war?  Sitting out the war could have meant staying neutral, not collaborating, and waiting for it all to end.

French Resistance workers spanned the political spectrum from communist to fascist; but they had one thing in common. They were all French patriots. They wanted to end the occupation and free France.  That goal kept them going through deprivation, torture and fear.

Fear is often synonymous with weakness which is synonymous with cowardice in books and movies. That is wrong. Only an idiot or a liar claims to be constantly brave, never knowing fear. The bravest people are those who acknowledge their fear and still do their job.

That is the lesson about living with fear that I learned from the French Resistance. We are all afraid of something. But if we don’t allow fear to stop us, we can do anything that we want and reach any goal.

About Norma Shirk

Norma started her company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, to help employers create human resources policies for their employees and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to have structure without bureaucracy. Visit Norma’s website:

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Filed under History, Self Savvy

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