Gentle ladies, gentle men
Waiting till the dance begin
Carefully we come to speak the word for all to hear
If you listen, if you should
We won’t be misunderstood
But don’t expect the words to ring too sweetly on the ear
Live in fear, live in fear, live in fear
In the gutter, in the street
Off his head or off his feet
Listen to the scratchy voices eating at your nerves
Pencil ready, paper dry
Shoot the girls and make them cry
Run for cover, things are bad but now they’re getting worse
Live in fear, live in fear, live in fear, live in fear
Is it painful, is it right?
Does it keep you warm at night?
Fool your friends and fool yourself, the choice is crystal clear
If you break it on your knee
Better men might disagree
Do you laugh or do you stick your finger in your ear?
Live in fear, live in fear, live in fear, live in fear
–Richard Thompson, “Roll Over Vaughan Williams”
For some days now, I have been mulling over writing a post about good and evil. The impetus came to a point recently, but it’s been brewing for some time because of my scarf* and some things I’ve been reading. And we’ll get to that later—probably next post. Because this post is going to be about something else: fear.
Not long ago, I was sitting in church. It was a Fast Sunday (or “Fast and Testimony”) meeting.** One of the speakers was a woman who described watching a video with her children that involved birds, who were wary of the cats below them in the yard, but insufficiently wary of snakes creeping along near-by branches. I couldn’t find the visual version, but I’m 99% certain it derived from this talk.
Such talks are common. Here’s another example:
What these talks have in common, and what they have in common with many other videos, not only those from the LDS church, is that they teach us to live in fear. But this is not only a matter of religion; political figures, similarly, trade on fear. So do manufacturers of commercial goods.
Fear is powerful–I well remember the sheer paranoia that struck us all following 9/11. The day of the attack, the president of the software company where I then worked sent us all home to be with our families, and I remember riding my bike homeward, noticing on an isolated bridge an uncapped plastic milk bottle full of some pale yellow liquid (it could have been urine, but this was Wisconsin, so it was more likely beer or lemonade). I remember mulling over the possibility that the bottle might contain some nerve agent or toxin or disease, ready to be casually knocked over and dispersed through the Western Wisconsin area. Yeah, right.
When the Anthrax letters appeared, even my eminently sensible spouse seriously contemplated microwaving all envelopes to destroy any biological agents.
Fear is powerful.
FDR wasn’t kidding when he said “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
As a kid, I was constantly afraid. Bad things could happen to my parents; I could get beaten up at school; planes would crash, towers would fall. In junior high, I started to read books like Alas, Babylon. The charismatic end-times religion in which I invested myself in high school told me that the end of the world was imminent. I told my parents that I didn’t think I was likely to live to see 30. I was psychologically ready for disaster. I vividly remember a dream in which I was shot for my beliefs. Indeed, I was ready to die.
What I wasn’t prepared to do was to live.
Perhaps that’s why Frank Herbert’s Dune and the Bene Gesserit “Litany Against Fear” struck such a powerful chord in me as, after high school, I moved increasingly toward skepticism:
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
The Litany was the start for me of transcending fear, and while I am still a fearful person, I am much less worried about the future than I once was. And so I turn to analyzing the nature of fear. And we begin at the beginning: What is it that we fear?
I would argue that what we fear is precisely what we don’t know. Some examples may be illustrative:
Consider the famous Reagan/Bush “Bear in the Woods” campaign ad:
The subtext, is that since you don’t know, you have to “prepared.” Ironically, it was the the bear that would come to the US with a realistic proposal that would have led to complete nuclear disarmament. And it would be the US insistence on a not yet developed antimissile technology (“Star Wars”) that would derail that proposal.
The other week, I had lunch with a woman who was interviewing me for a position with a non-profit (my preferred kind of work, but work in which I’m so far inexperienced). We met at a convenient spot—Ikea’s cafeteria—to talk about the position over meatballs. What struck me was that as we were getting lunch, she carefully put her utensils on top of a napkin, and mentioned that she always did that because she didn’t know how well they cleaned the trays.
Interviewing for a type of position I’d never had before, I felt a different kind of fear.
Job changes, moves, roller coasters, the possibility of disease—all of these things hold fear, but it is not because they in themselves are threatening. Indeed, waiting for a diagnosis of disease is, in my experience, far more unsettling than a knowledge that you have it.
What all of these have in common is that they present us with black boxes. We go in without knowing what we will find and we assume the worst.
But why should the unknown fill us with fear? Why not exhilaration? Imagine if the crew of the NCC-1701 had been like most of us—the Enterprise would have huddled in near-Earth orbit for five years.
To boldy go where no one has gone before!
In spite of the split infinitive, it suggests something. It suggests that what we do not know might not be worse than what we do know, but perhaps only different or—maybe—even better!
So let’s look briefly at why organizations—I’m looking at you, churches, at you politicians, and at you, advertisers—tend to use fear. I think the answer I’m contemplating should be pretty obvious from the last paragraph:
Organizations train us in fear so that we do not contemplate other possibilities. Because other possibilities might be better. Don’t like your church? You might find the one down the street more to your liking or—zounds!—maybe you’re more inclined to be an atheist! But you’d better not try. The folks down the street are Catholics; and if you’re an atheist, you’ll burn in hell. Different is bad. Indeed, Apple Computer, which once told us to:
Organizations use fear of the different to keep people in line.
I’m not saying that all fears are unreasonable. It’s unlikely that a world blasted by nuclear war would be better—or even simply different—from the world in which we live now. But I am saying that it’s fear of difference that tends to keep us where we are, chained to the present instead of contemplating the future.
In Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Toynbee Convector,” a man travels into the future, records it, and shows it to people so that they can see that the future will be better than the present. Stripped of fear of the future, they eagerly turn their hands toward building that future. It is only at the end of the story that the time traveler reveals that it was all a sham: he built the future out of papier-mâché and cardboard (this was before Photoshop) because he knew that his contemporaries feared the future. Shown that it was not to be feared, they built it.
How many of us struggle with the same problem? The devil we know is better (we think) than the devil we don’t. We live in fear.
We are encouraged to fear. We encourage ourselves to fear. And, as we shall see in my (hopefully) next blog entry, much of that fear has to do with notions arising out of the way we divide up the world. We believe that good implies evil; that because Gryffindor exists, so must implies Slytherin. That the Shire implies Mordor.
But does good (always) imply evil?
*It’s a University of Minnesota striped scarf, which gets mistaken for something that a Harry Potter fan might wear. I’m serious. I was visiting my old stomping ground a few years ago when I heard a guide telling prospective students that one of the cool things about the U of M was that you got to wear a “Harry Potter” scarf. Magical herbs, anyone?
**I’m a Mormon. For the benefit of non-Mormons, Fast Sunday, ordinarily the first Sunday in a given month, is an opportunity for members to spontaneously speak (briefly) about their faith in the Church or on whatever other topic upon which they feel moved to discuss. It’s also a day on which members are supposed to fast for two meals and donate the money not spent to help the needy.