Book Review by Sapphire Ng
The Art of Fear: Why Conquering Fear Won’t Work and What to Do Instead
by Kristen Ulmer
Copyright June 13, 2017
Hardcover, 320 Pages
An idiosyncratic exploration of Fear, with the occasional dabbling into themes of spirituality. This book offers an unmistakably distinctive frame of reference in which to regard the emotion of Fear, and is for the most part insightful. Depending on the individual reader, the book’s occasional plummet into debatable territory might potentially detract from a mostly pleasant reading experience.
The inclusion of the author’s personal narratives on her journey and experiences with Fear, and the incorporation of a smattering of other illustrative anecdotes and tales to aid in conveying and furthering the author’s arguments constitute the more engaging contents in the book.
Ulmer’s philosophy of Fear and the unique analogies she has employed to help convey her thesis about Fear are highly intriguing. She paralleled a person to a corporation with 10,000 employees, or to a parent with 10,000 children. In perusing this book, the reader would almost inevitably garner the firm impression that the author possesses greater than average insight into the almost mystifying, and sometimes frustrating, phenomenon of human emotions.
The nature of subjectivity of the contents in this book makes it susceptible to a variety of reader reactions. The author herself acknowledged traces of subjectivity in her writing stemming from her personal experience as a “pro extreme athlete” and a “Fear educator/facilitator.” The reader should not expect to agree readily and whole-heartedly with everything raised within the pages of this book.
I personally am ambivalent regarding the merits of this book. Most ideas appeared practicable and potentially useful, but others seemed problematic. A handful of ideas prompted an intuitive reaction of skepticism to swell within me, and several other ideas appeared unworkable.
In isolated instances where the author proclaimed the correctness of her perspective and the speciousness of that of others in irreverent and blunt language, these transpired as effective turnoffs. One might be able to imagine that the author’s quick dismissal of conventional therapeutic methods and wisdom utilized to address Fear in addition to overt references to the associated therapy industry and its professionals might not sit well with the practitioners in question. Such hasty repudiation of such an extensive body of existing work unfortunately only seemed to usurp the author’s own credibility as an authority on the subject matter.
This book nevertheless qualifies overall as a decently inspirational read for the community of readers open to renegotiating their relationship with the emotion of Fear to that which is proposed by the author. The conversational and highly accessible writing along with the intimate and articulate presentation of ideas make this book a satisfying read. This book is even a re-readable material in the hands of the right reader—the individual who earnestly relates to the alternately proposed mindset, is mentally and emotionally ready for change, and who is focused on assimilating the contrasting mindset into his or her life.
I greatly appreciate the countless shrewdly insightful points made in the book pertaining to Fear and the scope of other human emotions. The reading experience was not wholly enjoyable however. The writing and delivery felt rather dry at times and compelled me to put the book down. Other times, I found myself debating internally on whether I should persist in the tedium of the reading process just so I could learn an additional useful point or two. At more than one occasion especially in the first half of the book, I found myself skipping over certain rather wordy portions of the book.
Nonetheless, I especially loved the author’s complementary use of language to support her thesis about Fear. I enjoyed the unconventional coupling of words with the universal and unavoidable emotion of Fear and other “sibling” emotions—phrases such as “the wisdom of Fear,” and being “a student” of Fear, the peculiar notions of “honoring Fear” and even “savor[ing]” Fear, or the refreshing perception of the emotions of “Fear, Anger, Sadness, Misery, Shame, Unworthiness, and more” as “wise assets and allies” to our lives.
I surely appreciate a little anecdote in the book where the author recounted her experience in heeding the wisdom of her Fears which led to her abortion decision. I also value her reasonable and rather successful effort at supporting one of her premises, “Modern violence is repressed Fear, not Anger.” The highlighting of the presence of the act of Fear shaming is refreshing, and I absolutely loved the imagery the author conjured in further discussions about Fear, where she referenced the translation of the word “hell” and “heaven” in Japanese within the Zen tradition.
The author’s distinctly flippant tone in conveying some of her clearly subjective opinions earlier in the book seemed inappropriate. In an attempt to communicate her perspective on the mutability of the Thinking Mind, she rather tactlessly went, “you can meditate all you want, but unless your skateboarding passion results in a traumatic brain injury, the Thinking Mind is not going to go away.” A minimal level of respect ought to have been accorded to readers, whether her readers included earnest meditation practitioners, or athletes who have suffered traumatic and debilitating forms of injuries.
The author is certainly entitled to her judgments and criticisms of the extensive practice of therapy. Labelling the professional therapist who “specializes in ‘the mind’” and who graciously attempts to help a client use his or her “cognitive Intellect to solve an emotional problem” as a “waste [of] time” however might have been overstepping the boundaries. Additionally, the author’s declaration of “Western therapy” as an accomplice in keeping one “firmly stuck” behind emotional and mental “cage bars” would also probably not sit well with experienced industry practitioners, and existing and prior clients of therapy, especially those, including myself, who have experienced life-changing improvements from such sessions.
Some claims the author made also seemed dubious, especially the instance where she placed two conditional statements related to Fear and Fearlessness immediately following a supposedly “control” and “indicative” conditional statement. The third conditional statement that went, “If you seek Fear, that means you don’t have [Fear]. Which means you are living in Fearlessness” supposedly led to the “logical” conclusion that one can thus attain fearlessness by seeking fear. That notion might have been true, but the process for which the supposed conclusion was derived seemed wrought with non sequiturs.
Ulmer might not fit perfectly into the mold of the humble and even self-deprecating author. Considering however the requisite creativity for her to conjure intriguing equations such as “suffering = discomfort x resistance” where one’s level of suffering is said to be equal to one’s level of discomfort multiplied by one’s level of resistance, the strengths of this book might just be adequately redeeming of any perceived shortcomings of this book.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours for this review.