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Highlights from the final round of the 2014 GREAT AMERICAN THINK-OFF

Moderator John Forte: Jason, how would you explain people who have a fear of love?
Jason Steck: It’s not hard, I’m one of them.  One of the biggest fears that people have is to lose something that’s very precious to them and one of the things that’s most precious to people is the relationships that they’re in.  When you lose a relationship, when you break up with somebody, when you get divorced or when somebody dies, it’s a life event of the type that makes you want to crawl in a hole and die.  It has that paralyzing effect that Jennifer is talking about. 
But that fear is matched by another fear.  Often we have competing fears and the paralyzing force of that fear of love is often overcome and, in my case, was overcome by another fear; the fear of being alone, the fear of never connecting to another person that way again.  That fear drives you out to overcome the other fear which causes you to reenter the world.  We recover.  We get over the paralyzing effect of the fear of love that comes from a breakup in a relationship, but we’re driven by the fear of the alternative to overcome that, so fear still becomes the motivator to the point that it can overcome the paralyzing effect of the other fear.
Forte: Okay Jennifer, the first question for you.  For some us, fear is subtle and taken for granted.  How do you face fear if it is not identifiable?
Jennifer Nelson: I think this is a really great question to go along with motivation because it’s hard to understand how that would motivate if it’s something we can’t recognize.  I think when people talk about fear as a motivator, a lot of the power that we’ve heard of, (we heard Paul’s story about being threatened by men with machetes) the power in that fear comes from the visibility and the urgency and the intensity of that experience and it’s a lot harder to argue that you have a motivation from it when it is constant and subtle.  I think that that plays well into my argument that how could this be your greatest motivator when you struggle to even recognize it?  I think that also plays into the idea that fear, even when you believe it to be motivating, isn’t sustainable as a long-term motivator because even when it’s powerful, it’s that immediacy, but I’ve talked about how, in the long-term, it becomes crippling.  It can’t even last when it’s that powerful.  How could its motivational power last when it’s that subtle?
Forte: The next question is for you Jason.  If fear is the greater motivator, then why does anyone serve in the military where there is a always a potential of dying in a war?
Steck: There are actually been quite a few studies on this question: what makes soldiers fight?  There is a powerful argument to be made for the love side of this because the findings are that what really makes soldiers fight isn’t for the flag, it’s not for the ideology, it’s not because they support the war certainly because often they don’t, but they fight for each other.  They fight for the members of their unit.  But when you really dig down and you ask, “Why are you fighting for the members of the unit?  What are you seeking to achieve when you’re fighting?”  When you ask soldiers this question, they provide overwhelmingly an answer that leads to fear as their recognition.  What they are most afraid of is failing their comrades.

They’re afraid that someone will die because they didn’t do their job, one of their friends will die.  Their primary motivation at that moment and what drives them to go out into the battlefield, into the crossfire to jump on the grenade begins with love.  It is the inspirational force of love; they love their comrades.  But the immediate motivating factor is the fear that that person is going to die, the fear that they may be seen as a coward, the fear that something horrible will happen because they didn’t do their job.  That’s why people fight in war.
Forte: Okay Jennifer, your second question.  If people are more motivated by love, then why are despots and fanatics so successful in using fear and terror to rule their empires?
Nelson: I think when you talk about despots and fanatics and empires and tyrants, you need to be careful.  Fear isn’t the only thing at play there, but power and the structures that set them up and keep power in their hands, the structures in the government, which are not unlike ours in which people don’t necessarily have a voice when they lack the power.  So it’s not only these peoples’ fear that keeps them in place, but the power structures of their country.  It’s important to recognize that some of the most noble stories we have that we look at through history are people that did not have the power in those situations and stood up against those tyrants and those despots anyway regardless of that fear because they love something more than they feared that person. 
How many noble stories do we have about WWII people who did things in direct contrast to the Nazi’s, to Hitler, that helped people, that hid people, that sacrificed their own lives to try to make sure that that regime that was in power didn’t maintain power and continue to oppress others in their nation and there were people that did that that weren’t themselves Jewish that wouldn’t have been in danger.  They had no personal gain from it, but there was a motivating force that got them to do that and if they had only been afraid of those leaders, those stories wouldn’t exist in history.
Forte: We are halfway done with our final round.  I’m going to make a couple promoting announcements.  You will again be voting at the end of this round.  We will have a short intermission; it will be shorter than the previous one.  Please stick around for the announcement of the winner and the awards ceremony; the presentation of America’s Greatest Thinker.  Also, please join us afterwards at the cultural center for the reception.

So question for Jason: why is it that the two voices in this contest say that fear is stronger are male and the two voice championing love are female?
Steck: Yes, we noticed that; that fear is male and love is female in this debate.  I don’t know why it worked out that way, but I can guess.  It’s because men are socialized towards conflict.  We’re told in our society that the way that you achieve, the way that you build is through competition and conflict.  So we’re taught from the beginning that what is valued in being a man is to have others afraid of you and that’s what elevates all sorts of behavior from healthy competition to the dysfunction of a bully.  Women are socialized that they’re supposed to be loving and nurturing and caring and so it’s not surprising that, as a general tendency, the immediate reaction might be for men to prefer fear and women to prefer love.  I think in this case it’s just a coincidence because some of the most ruthless competitors that I know and am in a relationship with are women.  This one’s for you.
Forte: Question for you Jennifer: love comes and love dies.  If a fear is not somehow overcome, it lasts and lasts therefore fear is stronger than love.  Argue against that conclusion.
Nelson: Well I think the strength of fear all of the competitors here have acknowledge, but the question is about the motivational power of fear and that argues that fear can last.  That’s precisely what I wrote about in my essay; fear stayed.  The danger was gone, but the fear was still there and at that point, it was no longer a motivator, it was a “de-motivator.”  We’ve talked about fear leading to a fight or flight response.  We’re missing a third portion of that.  It’s not fight or flight.  It’s fight, flight or freeze and that is the long-term consequence of fear.  Yes, it would still have power, but it becomes a power that debilitates you rather than moving you towards anything.  Whether it’s feeling or behavior or otherwise, you aren’t doing anything anymore.  So when at last it still may have power, but it can’t be argued that that power is motivational.
Forte: Okay, it’s time for our final two questions and I’d like to remind the audience that you are voting not for the position, but for the better debater.  Who won this debate?  That’s who you should put on your cards when you hand them in.
So our final question for Jason: does love eliminate fear?
Steck: No, I think it often causes it.  I could go in a funny direction on that, but it’s my last question and I’d like to go in the serious direction. 
The things that we love are the things that we are the most afraid of losing and so the things that we take the strongest and most passionate actions to protect.  For example, parents love their children more than they love their own lives, so that causes them to do all kinds of things from good things as well as bad things to try to protect those children.  For example, they will be obsessive about getting the child in the perfect car seat, in the best car seat that they can find and installing absolutely correctly and they will take all kinds of actions to just try to make sure that that child is safe from everything.  And then sometimes that will tip over into some negative actions about helicopter parents who will swoop in and confront their children’s teachers for not giving their little snowflake an A.  Even in college it happened to me once.  But it’s because of the power of the love that they have for their children that causes them to fear even the tiniest scrape, the tiniest indignity, the tiniest bad grade from a crappy professor at a great university.  That’s what drives their behavior; the fear that is caused by their love.  The love is the inspiration, but the fear is the motivation for the actions that they take to protect their children.
Forte: So Jennifer, you were rebutting Jason’s answer to the question “Does love eliminate fear.”  Maybe you see this coming.  Your final question is does fear eliminate love?
Nelson: I wouldn’t say that fear eliminates love.  I would say that fear hides love and makes it less visible.  I think probably most of us have experience this: fear causes you to withdraw into yourself and love is about connections and love is about community and when you’re in a fearful state and you’re focused on self-preservation and you’re withdrawing and you’re pulling into a state where you feel you need to hide from whatever it is you’re fearful of, you’re no longer open for the connections that love will offer.  That doesn’t mean those connections aren’t there.  That doesn’t mean that the people who love you aren’t still around.  That doesn’t mean that love doesn’t exist in the world.  But it’s awfully hard to see love when you’re just withdrawing into a world of fear.
Forte: We’re going to have our summation statements.  Jason, you go first. 
Steck: Never let a lawyer ramble on unnecessarily.  There’s a type of music that I don’t really like much at all.  Rap music I don’t care for and there’s a group that’s a very loud and hard to listen to rap group called Linkin Park, but they have one song that isn’t like that at all and it starts with the stanza, “I dreamed I was missing.  You were so scared.  But no one would listen because no one else cared.  After my dreaming, I woke with this fear.  What am I leaving when I’m done here?”  This is perhaps the most profound fear that I’ve personally experience.  It’s the idea of I’m gone someday and is anybody going to care and if they care, why?  What do I want to be remembered for?  I have a fear that I’m going to be remembered for bad things or that I won’t be remembered at all and that fear drives almost everything that goes on in my life.  It drove me to overcome the experience of my childhood.  It drove me to overcome unemployment and find a new job and it drives me today and I hope it can drive all of us to a better place.
Forte: Jennifer?
Nelson: So the question before us today is which motivates us more and we’ve all agreed on the power of both forces, but I still believe that fear is a force that is very powerful in the face immediate threat, but not sustainable.  Love is able to motivate us more often and in more situations and it’s a power that can remain a resource for us even when those we love aren’t physically present.  How many of us hang onto our memories and the knowledge – before I got up here tonight, my phone blew up with messages from person after person telling me that they were rooting for me even though they’re not here.  That power is still a resource for me.  Had fear been motivating me, I wouldn’t be at this podium, I wouldn’t be standing here, but I am and I am largely because of that support and because my love for the very things that this competition brings together; writing, public speaking, sharing your story and hearing the stories of others.  I love these things, so it was a great idea for me to do this.  It wasn’t overcoming my fear, it was the enjoyment of those things.  I know some have talked about Maslow's hierarchy and safety.  Love creates spaces of safety.  When you’re loved, you feel safe.  You can explore.  You can create.  You can find things anew and make things anew, so as you cast your ballot, I hope you agree with me and with the Beatles that when it comes to true motivation, “all you need is love” and that you aren’t afraid to side with love.