The confusion of hurt and disappointment, of anger and frustration, and succumbing to the illusion and misinterpretation of self esteem are three “7 Deadly Emotional Sins” (analyzed in Part 1), that are relatively easy to control.

That’s because both their triggers and their manifestations are subject to internal, personal control. Yes, you can choose to be disappointed rather than “hurt” by someone’s betrayal, or frustrated rather than angry with your child.

But among the remaining four I’ve identified as deserving discussion, the fourth “sin”, acting from fear rather than desire, can be much tougher to deal with, because of the often overwhelming influence of external forces and factors, including cultural and evolutionary history (as explained below).

Deadly Emotional Sin #4: Being Driven by Fear, Rather Than by Desire

One of the strongest impressions formed during my years living in China and more recently during the 11 weeks I recently spent there is that for many, if not most of my friends and acquaintances, their most important career and life decisions seem to have been or be decided primarily by worrying fear rather than by pleasurable desire.

(Of course, almost all of our actions are determined by both; however, the proportions and roles vary dramatically from person to person and from culture to culture. Moreover, as will be argued below, the desire to end unpleasant things can feel very much like fear.)

For example, most women I’ve known in China have married or plan to marry from fear of disappointing or disobeying their parents, from fear of being alone when they are old, from fear of being “different” from their friends, from fear of waiting too long to have a child who will support them or from other fears of economic vulnerability, to name some, but not all of the fears that drive that big life decision in China.

It’s the same with Chinese students at all levels, although to a seemingly lesser extent than with marriage, in terms of the proportion of fear in the average mix among them. Instilling the binary idea that as a student, you are either “the one” or “a zero” (i.e., are the very best or a failure), parents, grandparents and some teachers, set the stage for fear-driven academic careers.

Fear of disappointing or angering parents or teachers, of humiliation, or of rejection can and does swamp the positive pleasures of learning and curiosity and the desire to enjoy both—even if not entirely or without creating aggressive competitiveness as an offshoot hybrid of fear of losing and pleasurable desire to enjoy the fruits of “winning”.

In contrast to this, the Western ideal in such domains has, for quite a long time, been different: In the arena of marriage, the ideal has been to marry from desire—romantic, sexual, companionable, intellectual, creative, adventurous, or quasi-corporate (i.e., “working” together to “build” a future and a family).

Of course, fear plays a role in the West as well as in China, e.g., the virtually universal fear among the marriage-minded of having no one with whom to spend or cope with the twilight years.

But a wedding dress worn from fear is neither a cultural icon (save in the rare case of a coercively arranged marriage or union of man and reluctantly pregnant bride) nor common personal experience in Vermont, I imagine.

It’s the same with jobs and careers in China: fear of being poor or broke, being at the top of the list. Rarely have I heard or sensed in connection with either work or marriage any clear, examined, or decisive role for pleasurable desire.

Among the “7 Deadly Emotional Sins”, this 4th one, acting from fear instead of desire is, as I’ve suggested, perhaps one of the most forgivable, because it is so often a reflection of external circumstances that are difficult to change or control or to be held responsible for.

When Danger is Clear and Imminent

The pressure to act from fear instead of or more than desire can be as irresistible as it is obvious (these two characteristics’ being closely correlated), even for those of us who are not Chinese or forced into an arranged marriage elsewhere.

The boss tells his sales manager to hustle and rustle up more clients, because sales are sluggish. The manager jumps to it—but from desire? Not likely. It would be nice if desire could drive his new-found drive, but it’s not likely in such pressing and pressured circumstances.

However, when there is no immediate or imminent pressure, such as that exerted by a bellowing boss, no “clear and present danger” to warrant fear, it will be smarter to let desire play a more dominant role, to the extent that it can.

For example, I’ve chosen to work from the road—recently writing from (and sometimes about) China, now from utterly gorgeous Inverness, Scotland (and soon from elsewhere in the UK).

Have I undertaken this primarily or exclusively from fear? Of course not.

This is overwhelmingly desire-driven, given my taste for the adventures and stimulation of travel. I chose to become a writer and lecturer. Fear? Only to the extent of the fear of being bored to death were I to take just any immediately available job in an office just because it was a (well-paid) job.

The Likely Evolutionary Primacy of Fear over Desire

This point about desire and fear made, it should now seem obvious that it is correct: A life lived with and defined by desire is so much more likely to be so much more satisfying than one rooted in fear. Yet, although intellectually virtually self-evident, emotionally fear prevails in the lives of all too many. Why is that?

One possible explanation is that fear and desire have different survival value, with fear having trumped pleasurable desire in the survival of our genes over evolutionary eons—including the survival of the genes that program us for fear.

It is one thing to have greater “satisfaction value”, as pleasurable desire seems to; it is quite another to have greater survival value, as worrying fear apparently does.

To illustrate this point, a consideration of a crying baby should suffice: When a distressed baby shrieks and screams, it triggers more fear than pleasurable desire in the average parent—the fear that something is terribly wrong prevailing over any imaginable pleasurable desire (such as the kind that led to the creation of that baby in the first place) to do something about it.

Of course, there is the desire to put an end to the screaming; but it is not pleasurable desire. Instead, it is the desire to end something negative, not to begin anything positive—which makes it a cousin of fear, much as the desire to end loneliness is so similar to the fear of being alone.

This is how evolution comes into the picture and paints it: If pleasant desire motivated us as a species more than unpleasant fear, we would probably not be here to write and read about that fact.

That’s because the consequences of ignoring painful imminent costs, e.g., of our lives or at least our limbs, to an approaching T-Rex, because of the distractions of an imminent pleasure, e.g., chomping on mangoes in the bush, would include species extinction.

The priority of intense fear in the face of imminent danger over the concurrent prospect of intense pleasure made good personal and evolutionary sense at the dawn of time and still does now.

But since there are far fewer T-Rex-level dangers in our lives these days, we need not allow any genetically-programmed fear-über-desire rule to automatically rule our lives at the expense of our happiness and satisfaction—especially when we still have the options of flight, if not fight from the smaller-scale dangers and threats we face in a world without dinosaurs.

Should we fail to seize this post-prehistoric evolutionary and historic opportunity to allow desire to hold sway over fear, I fear we will be at risk of further evolving into one very unhappy species….

Emotional Rex.


Next in Part III: the “7 Deadly Emotional Sins”–more serpents in the office and at home.

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