On Phobias and Other Aberrations by George Merrill


While cleaning my library the other day, I came across a book. I hadn’t seen it before. It’s titled The Highly Selective Thesaurus for the Extraordinarily Literate. The book seemed too elitist for me.

Curious, however, I thumbed through the pages. The book contained two hundred and five pages and a ton of words ranging from A to Z, – roughly six thousand words in total. Each word had anywhere from one to five synonyms listed for that particular word. There was one exception. That was for the word ‘fear.’ There were no less than sixty-five words identifying our various morbid fears.

‘Fear’ constituted the only word in the book that had so many distinct synonyms.

All of the sixty-five words denoting morbid fears ended with ‘phobia’- the Greek word meaning fear – and the first part of each word, typically in Greek or another foreign word, designating the object of the fear. Reading this suggested to me that we’re scaredy-cats in a bewildering number of ways.

Temperamentally I have an anxious personality. However, I found some comfort in what the book revealed. The often goofy phobias that I’ve suffered over the years were distinctive enough to be dignified with a diagnostic term, in a foreign language, too. I thought that gave my anxieties a touch of class. It made me feel as if my fear of heights – acrophobia – left me well inside the human condition and that I was not just a scaredy-cat, as I’d so often thought. When you’re neurotic, it’s comforting to think of yourself as a normal one.

Phobias, as they’re commonly understood, suggest abnormalities and they can generate personal shame. In some instances they can be crippling. Other phobias are treated simply as quirks. My guess is that most of us have phobias and are shy about anyone knowing about them.

Years ago I knew a man who was a professional pilot and flew cargo all over the world. We were talking one day and he told me that he was afraid of heights. I asked him how that could be? After all he was spending half his life in the air. He had made some mental accommodations to his fear – maybe something like whistling in the dark – so that in the safety of his cockpit and in control of the plane, he could somehow manage his phobia. On a ladder two stories high? Out of the question.

When I lived in New York City I was plagued with claustrophobia. It was a phobia tailored particularly to my commute downtown. As long as the train moved along in the subway, even at a snail’s pace, I was fine. When it stopped between stations, invariably between 42nd and 34th Streets I’d feel frightened. As soon as the train started rolling, no matter how slowly, I’d feel safe again. I’d feel normal only from the 79th Street station south until the 42nd Street station.

As I see it, not all phobias are necessarily weird or pathological: galeophobia, latraphobia, phasmophobia, bathophobia, coasterphobia and taphophobia, to name a few. These are respectively the fear of sharks; the fear of doctors; fear of ghosts; fear of depths (like a deep well); fear of roller coasters and the fear of being buried alive. With regard to coasterphobia, the only reason hardly any kids have that phobia is they aren’t old enough to know better.

In Britain, during the Victorian era, the fear of being buried alive – taphophobia – was endemic. Pre-deceased planning included arranging a bell above ground and attached to the casket below. If the deceased discovered he wasn’t really dead, but that he had been interred prematurely, he could pull a chain, ringing the bell and alerting the living above ground that his relatives made a colossal mistake. While ringing the bell the interred also prayed that the mistake was just accidental.

I’d say confidently that anyone who does not suffer from galeophobia, the fear of sharks, is really crazy, or if not, an exceptional speed swimmer.

We had a dog-named Spunky, a lovable mutt. She suffered terribly from astraphobia, the fear of thunder and lightning. It was heartrending to see.

On summer nights, long before we had any indication that a thunderstorm was in the works, she’d exhibit preternatural instincts for sensing approaching thunderstorms. It must have been her acute hearing. When she began trembling, slinked away and hid under a table while scratching the floor as if making a foxhole, we knew a storm was soon in the making. We heard no thunder nor could see a darkened sky. Poor Spunky was inconsolable. When the storm finally passed she became her old self again.

We call someone cool who remains unperturbed in the face of danger. Cool is the post-modern word for equanimity. We admire cool people. Most Christians regard God as cool and see equanimity as our necessary condition for being gentle, loving, content, charitable and even prudent. Hot heads or nervous wrecks always make the worst calls. Jewish thinkers regard equanimity as the foundation of moral and spiritual development. Does God, then, keep his cool all the time? Does he get fighting mad as we do? Theologians debate the subject to this day. Literalists insist God has a bad temper and we’d better believe it.

In Exodus, when God learned that the Israelites had fashioned a golden calf to worship, God was furious and wanted to annihilate them. Moses tried to talk him down, but God was adamant and would have none of it. God said, “Now then let me alone that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.” After some serious deal making Moses finally prevailed, but meanwhile I’ll bet the Israelites were scared witless. This makes Moses the dove and God the hawk. I have trouble with that.

Whether you’re a strict biblical literalist or interpret scripture more liberally, one thing remains indisputable: God isn’t scared of a thing.

That God can be a hot head does have some biblical precedents but, if true, that would make him like Kim Jong Il. Would anyone would want to emulate someone like that, much less worship him? I can’t imagine. Personally, I’m persuaded that God does not annihilate his enemies nor is he ever afraid. I do imagine he’s sad a lot. I believe he worries, too (that’s not exactly being scared because it’s more like compassion) when he sees how even after we’ve been around for over two hundred thousand years, we’re still too scared to love one another as he loves us.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.


Letters to Editor

  1. jennifer merrill says:

    this was a very cool article…maybe you could add this: your daughter is slowly overcoming her fear of public speaking – One poem at a time!!! SHE FIGURED AT 56 IT WAS TIME TO STOP BEING A SCAREDY CAT!! of course, the wine didn’t hurt either!!!

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