一年被蛇咬，十年怕井绳/yī nián bèi shé yǎo，shí nián pà jǐng shéng. After getting bit by a snake one year, one fears the rope in the well for ten years.
This is a Buddhist saying originating from the Song dynasty. If one were to be bitten by a snake, of course that experience would drive fear into them, even to the point of fearing a rope. Our minds see danger where there is none. Michael Shermer calls this is a false positive because we are so alert to the possibility that we see them even when they’re not there.
This can be even more profound, seeing as one needs to drink water. If one fears the rope bringing water from a well, just because they were bitten by a snake one time, that person might die of thirst. Old wisdom may go by new names over time, but it remains wisdom, regardless of what it’s called. In other words, would not a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Our minds’ tendency to exaggerate dangers evolved because our ancestors who did not build that fear died off, but at the same time, these false positives can lead to our own peril.
Think of the wars we in the United States find ourselves in now. We in the United States were bitten by dangerous and deadly snake nearly 16 years ago, and we in the United States still fear everything that looks like that snake, including the tired, the poor, the huddled masses.
How do we address this error? I don’t think it’s by ostracizing people who call the rope a snake. We all run into different snakes in our lives. Antagonism by others is just another snake. When people stressed, everything feels like antagonism. That’s why helping an animal caught in a trap is so difficult. They bite you, even if you’re benevolent. Maybe if we take the people who have been bitten by the snake and show them what they fear is a life saving rope, we can all drink from the well together.