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This post is a week overdue, and in our weird funhouse media environment, that might as well be eternity (I suppose I should really be writing about Burt Reynold’s death now…and maybe in a way I am). Yet the larger ramifications of this eulogy are bigger than just one moment, and since none of our leaders said quite the right thing, we have to piece meaning together on our own as the wreaths wither and the pomp dissipates.

Like a lot of American, I have been thinking about John McCain’s funeral and the legacy of one of the most eminent national leaders of our era.  My feelings about McCain’ politics are complicated and are undergoing revision (indeed, my feelings about America’s “great era” during the second half of the twentieth century are likewise complex and undergoing change).

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But this post isn’t about politics as such. As is traditional for a funeral piece, it is about larger issues of character and value.

During the horrible 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump famously cast aspersions on John McCain by saying “He’s not a war hero…He was a war hero because he was captured? I like people who weren’t captured.” The implication was that McCain was some sort of loser–one of the ultimate insults in Trump’s big book of putdowns (which the swindler apparently has held onto since primary school).  I stand against Trump and the dangerous poisons he has injected wholesale into our political system, yet his imputations against McCain are worth examining…for McCain’s life was indeed deeply shaped by loss.

McCain was born into the shiny luster of deep brass: his father and his grandfather were both admirals in the U.S. Navy and it was always clear his life too would follow a path of naval service and leadership.  But that path often veered into strange and horrible territory of loss and failure, to wit:

He lost his freedom during a disastrous war which we lost.

He lost years of his life to torture, deprivation, and cruel mind games.

He lost the Republican primary in 2000 (possibly due to dirty tricks) and he lost the presidency itself in 2008.

He lost his political party to Trumpism (although whenever Trump’s runaway train finally blows up, whatever Republicans are left, if any, will cravenly say that they always were always McCain style mavericks who were never fully with the Donald).

He lost a battle with cancer and he lost his life.

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Yet McCain’s life was not defined by these losses.  He kept stepping around them and he kept on swinging to the end.  McCain never gave up.  He kept on trying even despite mistakes, setbacks, or naked misfortune.  If we told young John McCain in the Hanoi Hilton that he would survive and become a wild success–titanically rich, internationally known, and one of the great legislators of his day—he might have doubted us, but, clearly, he kept grasping forward despite pain and despair.  The Navy’s (seldom used) motto is “Semper Fortis” which can be alternately translated as “Always Courageous” or “Always Powerful”.  These different interpretations can have different…or even opposite meanings, but McCain tended to prefer the former even when it was at the expense of the latter.

One of the most pernicious forces in life is loss aversion which Wikipedia defines as the “tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains.”  Loss aversion makes people value things incorrectly. The fear of losing one’s crummy medical care makes one avoid taking steps which would provide better medical coverage.  The fear of losing one’s dead-end job makes it hard to conceive us the endless possibilities for meaning and success. The fear of losing national prestige leads us down a paranoid and brutish path which self-evidently forfeits moral leadership.

Undue fear of loss is undue FEAR, or, to be blunt: people who are excessively afraid of losing things become cowards, and cowards do stupid, crazy things.

We have all lost things in life…things which haunt us. Lately we have lost things as a nation too.  Most disastrously we have lost our ability to stand up for honor and fairness even if it hurts us in the short term.  If we let this haunting fear creep into our hearts we will lose more things: our hard-won social gains, the great scientific discoveries of tomorrow, international prestige and the inestimable (albeit imperfect) boon of Pax Americana.  We could even lose our democracy, and end up with a thing that is called a republic but which is not truly a government representative of the people’s wishes.

John McCain is gone. We have lost him (and I suspect even his detractors and opponents are already starting to feel that loss), but we can honor him in the way that he would appreciate best.  We can learn from our losses and then put them behind us without letting them change who we really are or make us afraid to do what is right. That would be a true legacy, towering above a name on some building or highway.  America claims to be the Home of the Brave.  In his best moments, John McCain was indisputably brave. Let us all partake of this inheritance and try to be braver.

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Last week’s essay about fear has made me think about the opposite of fear: desire.  I don’t mean romantic desire (although maybe that too), but instead what we really want…not just over the course of an afternoon or in junior high school, but for all of our lives. It is a big question!  And it becomes bigger when we start talking about what people want collectively at a city or national level (or at a level beyond that). What do we want for ourselves within a decade? What about a lifetime?  Or many lifetimes? But, whereas fear is very miserable, at least we tend to have a strong sense of what we are afraid of, and why.  Desires (beyond immediate obvious sorts like mates, status objects, good outcomes for our loved ones) are abstruse and inchoate.   We seem to know exactly what we are running from, the question of what we are running towards is much more elusive.

Humankind is a hive organism… a super colony like mole rats or termites, but we exist at a planetary scale, so it maybe behooves us to honestly talk about the things we all want and the directions these aspirations are leading us in.

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This week, in order to more fully explore these issues, I have chosen three animal fables concerning what humankind wants and the lengths to which we will go to obtain our desires.  They seem like simple stories, however, the more you think about them, the less facile they become.

I say these are animal stories because, in each case, the guide/interface to humans reaching what they want is an animal.  The animals in these stories represent the “natural” world with its power, glory, and strength.  The tales seem to set humankind apart from that world and from other creatures–as a different sort of being even from magical talking animals–yet I am not sure we are so different (neither from real animals nor from the ones in the stories).  Religious people see humans not as animals at all, but more like a sort of lesser “junior” deity.  I think we are an extreme manifestation of the animal kingdom and there are no gods–divinity is only an abstruse concept we have created to give shape to our fears and desires. Yet maybe that is not so different from what the religious people think (the idea of divinity makes a big appearance in these three fables as well).  I love animals and I mostly like being one (although greedy angry primates aren’t my favorite creatures).  I have my own strong ideas concerning where humankind needs to go and it seems like we are going the wrong way.

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Enough blather: I am losing the thread!  I will present each of these tales without commentary.  We can talk about what they mean after they are done, however, as you read them, please keep thinking about what you want the most both for now, and for the far future when you are long gone.

What is the most powerful force in human affairs?  Most people would probably assert that love is paramount.  Compassion for one’s mate, one’s family, or one’s fellow beings  is as beautiful and dominant as its reputation.  Powerful arguments can be made that pursuit of status is the most important thing (I suppose this includes ambition, greed, pride, and fame-seeking in all of their guises, good and ill).  An idealist would say the pursuit of wisdom is our greatest drive:  it is only through wisdom that we understand the world and collectively move upwards (or, indeed, know anything at all).  Cynics might say that the pursuit of pleasure motivates people.  Religion, with its false certainties and self-serving rules could also conceivably be named as the prime motivator of our social species (probably by some priest in a silk robe riding a palanquin weighed down with gold).

Unfortunately, these are all wrong.  The greatest force of human affairs is fear.  Any felon or dictator (or middle manager) knows the fastest way to make people behave a certain way is to credibly threaten them. Fear also lies beneath all the other drives listed above. Even when people are motivated by love, it is their fear of losing love (or never finding it) which makes them act.  To motivate a parent, tell them their children are in danger! Economists tell us that the pain of losing a thing is more cutting than the pleasure of attaining it (and I believe them). But superseding any of that, fear is a fundamental constituent part of all of us.  Terror and anxiety are hardwired into us by evolution.  An animal which doesn’t watch out for predators, traps, and adversaries is soon dead.

I will tell you another reason I say this.  I am afraid.  I am afraid to even write this terrible truth. When I was a child I lay awake, unable to sleep because I was afraid that God would send me to hell for some infraction.  When I realized that there is no deity except for the ones we imagine, I was afraid of the infinite oblivion of death.  I was afraid that nuclear war would burn away our cities and civilization and leave the last survivors to die rotting and screaming of radiation-poisoning.  I was too nervous to talk to girls.  I hid in books and even they made me afraid. In sleep I was tormented by nightmares.  The only time I haven’t been afraid was when I was drunk.  So I drank as deeply as I could.  Then one day I became even more afraid (rightly) that drink was dragging me to my grave and robbing me of myself.  Our fears are not necessarily wrong or false—but feeding them by indulging them…or trying to escape them…it only makes them worse.

I have told you that fear is the main motivator of folk (of all our fellow animals, actually). It has saved us time and again…it is how our forbears survived this world of fangs, traps, spears, Assyrians, and mustard gas to reproduce. But it is a terrible weakness too. Politicians and the press know this better than anyone.  Listen to the speeches.  The main point is generally that you will be gunned down by madmen or outdone by foreign competitors if you don’t follow a certain leader.  Watch TV and look at how the ads manipulate you to buy snake oil and salad shooters by invoking your fear of cancer, old age, or other people.  The news today is instructive.  One group of politicians says “if you don’t carry a gun, you will be gunned down by a madman and the other side wants to ban guns!” the other side says “only if we ban guns, will we not be gunned down by madmen” and on and on they go, in a circle, about every subject.  It is driving us all crazy and reducing us to sad, angry tribes of wretched cowards.

This is just terrible! No wonder the authoritarians are creeping back and the quacks and con-men do such boom business.

There is only one recourse.  I am sure you know what I am going to say…but my point is a paradox, so I will say it with a tale ripped from popular literature. Did you read ‘A Game of Thrones”?  It is the story of an execution and its aftermath. The first scene foreshadows this, and has the best moment of the series.  A group of conscripts and draftees are attacked and slaughtered by unstoppable monsters.  The terrified survivors of this attack run away and are subsequently caught by the authorities (the main characters!) who put the defectors to death.  The beheading is seen through the eyes of a child watching his father act as executioner.   Afterwards the child is confused.  One brother said that the condemned man was afraid when died, but his other brother said the prisoner was brave and died well:

“What do you think?” his father asked. Bran thought about it.

“Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”

“That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father told him.

Only when you are afraid can you be brave.  Only through such bravery can you avoid being ruled by fear. The theme is echoed later on as the protagonists’ fortunes falter and their little sister is lost in the midst of a brutal civil war.  To make her way through this terrifying world of armed goons and psychopaths with knives, she repeats a mantra again and again.  “Fear cuts deeper than swords.” It allows her to keep her wits when others freeze. It lets her do things she would be afraid to do otherwise.

“Fear cuts deeper than swords.” It is a platitude from a dime-store fiction (and a metaphor–don’t test it at home!), but it embodies a critical truth.  Winston Churchill said it as “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all others.”

On the other side of the ocean, our one life dictator (so far) said it in his first inaugural address to nation terrified of the Great Depression “The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself.” I am saying this to everyone, but most of all to my fellow citizens.  We need to remember FDR’s words again and again. In our world of seething change and garbage content which indulges facile drives, these words are as true as they were back when World War II bore down on all of us.

We MUST change.  We must look long and deep at whatever scary thing the clickbait article says and then think instead of just feeling. We must listen to our cowardly leaders carefully…and then we have to ignore our instinctual emotions and repeat  “Fear cuts deeper than swords.”  Look at what I am saying right now (it’s scary stuff) and then repeat this mantra. Embrace your fear and understand it…and then do what is right instead of what makes you less fearful. “Fear cuts deeper than swords.” Repeat it when grasping old cravens on a screen tell you to give in to fear and submit to them.  Otherwise we will not live in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  We will instead be in the land of fear, the home of the slave.

Lord Soth’s Charge (Keith Parkinson)

To finish up this week’s undead theme, I was going to write about another classic undead monster–I have here a long list of mummies, banshees, ghouls, and vampires from around the world (including some flying intestine-head things from Southeast Asia that would cause the most jaded horror enthusiast to cower in dismay).  However, to tell the truth, all the endless moaning and lurking in tombs and insatiably thirsting for life energy is starting to wear on me.   What is the bigger meaning of all of this?  What is it that makes the undead so beguiling to so many different cultures—and yet so oddly uniform in basic motivation and temperament?

Let’s start with the obvious emotional context of the undead.  The concept packages some pretty blatant implications right out front.   The undead represent many of our fears about sexuality—they are always biting necks, wearing diaphanous robes, or grabbing at milkmaids in the night.  They seem sexy and powerful, but turn out to be, at best, all gross and squishy (and, at worst, morally repugnant and dangerous).  The concept that one is infected by a demon-thing to then become a demon-thing oneself also overtly symbolizes all sorts of anxieties about disease and promiscuity.   I’m not going to dwell on this because I left it as an undercurrent in my four earlier essays (and because my parents read my blog), but it segues to an even bigger theme: the undead represent the frustrations of being corporeal.

We have physical bodies which provide for ephemeral pleasures but ultimately rot and fall apart.  Such frailty is a far cry from the platonic perfection which religions promise.  We fear illness and mortality, and we fear the slow failures of senescence.  What could represent that better than a living corpse?  The obsolete hopping vampire is not just wearing outdated threads from the last season but from the last millennium!  Our infatuation with all these blood-drinking spirits, revenants, living corpses, and pale walkers comes from our existential obsession with understanding death—the ultimate taboo and the greatest mystery—“the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns”.

Death the Maiden (Marianne Stokes)

So our fascination with the undead is a reflection of our fear of death.  This is hardly an original or startling conclusion.  But it only half of the full picture: the more important moral behind the living dead is also more subtle.

The undead hunger for life but they can only imitate life’s most weary habits.  The draugr is like the average investment banker, fiercely gathering treasure even after wealth has lost any meaningful value.  The lemures can not forsake the street-side shadows which they haunted in life as footpads.  Vampires are out there in nightclubs (or high schools!) picking up pretty girls with low self-esteem for centuries–when any sane person is driven to despair by the singles scene almost immediately.  Like the bloated & forgetful alcoholic returning to the same bar-stool, or the gambler driven back to the slots after recursive nights of bitter loss, the undead are creatures of dreadful mindless habit.  This is the great lesson from all these horror tropes.

Skeletons Warming Themselves (James Ensor, 1889, oil on canvas)

The undead are not beguiling; instead they are trapped like weary wage slaves going through the motions.   Our fascination with ghosts and zombies stems in part from our terror of the grave–for life is indeed very short—but the true lesson to be had from these sad legions of supernatural clichés is not to be afraid of life.  Don’t allow yourself to be captured in a stupid rut.  Life is for living, not for walking in circles with your arms out while you moan.  Get up from the opium den floor, walk out of your cubicle, flee your damn stupid pyramid scheme.  It’s time to change your loveless marriage!

Haunted Couple; Illustration from The Bridge of Love-dreams (Hokusai, 1809, woodblock print)

Live mindful of death, opportunity flees away.  Once you are really in the grave, the vampire’s bite, the draugr’s gold, all the suffering and cannibalism and exploitation and desire and hope of this world—it will all be meaningless.  In the meantime, there is no reason to act dead until you really are.

Detail from a Roman Sarcophagus

Our politicians and our media greatly overstate threats to our wellbeing.

Media outlets are full of fear mongering stories about how common household chemicals will injure and kill us.  Global warming is bringing about the end of days (in the least dramatic and slushiest of possible apocalypses).  Our food is unsafe and toxic. Autism is on the rise.  Terrorists and enemies are everywhere. Measles is coming back…. You’ve looked at the news: you know the sort of  thing I’m talking about.

These reports do not exist because people worldwide are universally worse-off and more endangered than ever (substantial bodies of data suggest that the opposite is true).  Looking back at newspapers and magazines from yesteryear reveals headlines filled with the same sort of—now hilarious–language, concerning threats we have largely forgotten.  We’ve nearly been wiped out by Halley’s comet, Global cooling, a communist third column, holes in the ozone,Y2K, Swine Flu, and innumerable other deadly scourges.  News outlets know that we insatiably consume stories like this, so they oblige our awful tastes.

Politicians also tell us we should be afraid because it magnifies their authority and because it is a win/win proposition. If something bad happens—they warned us.  If nothing bad happens, it means they prevented it from happening.

Undoubtedly some of these threats are real and we should indeed worry about them (ah, but which ones?), however I wish our elected leaders would use some different arguments other than the hysterical ones hardwired in our desperate primate brains.  Being chronically frightened makes us a less successful, less happy society in obvious ways and in subtle ones.  To live trembling because of our own newspapers and our own leaders really does seems cowardly.

Um, Phobos, as envisioned by a contemporary artist....

Phobos was the Greek god of panic and terror.  He lacked the high profile of his parents, Aphrodite and Ares, but sources indicate that people worshiped him (Greeks tended to be quiet about their prayers to chthonic deities because such wishes were usually… of a private nature).  It seems his followers sacrificed to him and called upon him to instill fear in others.   Here is a wonderfully bloody quote describing the worship of Phobos from Aeschylus’ play Seven Against Thebes (he is invoked as “Terror” in this translation):

Seven warriors yonder, doughty chiefs of might,
Into the crimsoned concave of a shield
Have shed a bull’s blood, and, with hands immersed
Into the gore of sacrifice, have sworn
By Ares, lord of fight, and by thy name,
Blood-lapping Terror, Let our oath be heard-
Either to raze the walls, make void the hold
Of Cadmus-strive his children as they may-
Or, dying here, to make the foemen’s land
With blood impasted.

Hercules encountered (and slew) another Phobos worshiper, Kyknos, who was killing passersby in order to build some sort of crazy terror temple from their skulls.  As a part of his psychological campaign, Alexander the Great publicly and ostentatiously sacrificed to Phobos the night before the Battle of Gaugamela.  Fear was a useful tool for Alexander both on the battlefield and off–so he played up his connection with its deity.

So why am I thinking about worshipers of Phobus?  For one thing I have an abiding interest in underworld deities [expect to see more of them here as an ongoing post category].  They have vivid dramatic flare and they make magnificent metaphors for the darker passions.  Also I have been thinking about the broader meaning of fear and its ramifications for our society.  It seems appropriate to start that examination with an ancient god and an Aeschylus quote.

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