Wednesday, November 20, 2002

"The power to create context is the recipient's skill...He or she must acquire that skill by learning or by lucky mutation, that is, by a successful raid on the random. The recipient must be, in some sense, ready for the appropriate discovery when it comes." Gregory Bateson
Mind and Nature


"FEAR, fear, is a man's best friend," John Cale once sang, only partly in jest. In some ways it must be---after all, such a strong emotion must have had survival value in repeated situations. Healthy fear, we call it: the fear of large and noisy, fast-moving objects that keeps pedestrians wary at the sidewalk's edge. But like the famous fight- or- flight response set off a dozen times during a normal day in western civilization, fear can be inappropriate, disproportionate and misdirected.

Fear's frenzy contends with areas of awareness, intention and responsibility that are our best excuses for calling ourselves human. Fear abides in the darkness, especially if we see "consciousness as the light of clarity," as does poet Charles Simic, "and history as the dark night of the soul."

Fear is our most important media product, as seen in Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine." The rush of fear jolts our attention, the promised prize of every sponsored moment on television. Fear sells papers.

Fear as entertainment exorcises the tension, but it ritualizes the fear. We don't admit it, but we know it's there. In every act of violence we see, we are victim and executioner. We feel their fear.

The swoon of fear demonstrably clouds our judgment, but then, judgment isn't the point of fear. The point is to move real fast out of harm's way. The body would rather be wrong about the threat than dead from it. The body will forgive mistaking the benign for the dangerous over and over---and perhaps has adapted the laugh response in compensation---in preference to the one possibly fatal mistake of failing to fear the mortal threat.

But for the body politic, it's another story. Fearing the wrong threat blinds the ability to see the real ones; even if the target is correct, excessive fear-and obsessive fear-- can lead to disastrous decisions.

Fear can distort our perceptions in less fraught moments, more quietly, but with greater consistency. A persistent background fear that shapes incoming information, even blocking some out entirely. "It is difficult to get a man to understand something," observed Upton Sinclair, "when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

Fear-mongering is a tried and true tactic of the unscrupulous. These days it is injury accompanied by insult. We threaten your job unless you convince us you're doing it for love. When you're downsized, you're cut down to size: it was your fault. You know they rule by your justifiable fear, but you can't ever let them know you know.

We seem only to recognize how leaders cynically exploit unjustifiable fear years after they are successful in doing so. I will slay the invisible enemy, the emperor cries, and I will tell you when it's been slain. Wearing our fear as a shining suit, this emperor would otherwise have no clothes. Neither would the enemy.

How is it that our enemy is always wrong about us, but we are never wrong about our enemy? Until perhaps these two are no longer enemies, but allies against a common foe. Sometimes fear is all we see.

A society that thrives on fear forgets the future. It burns up the present. The rich oil barons fear a future of taking risks on renewable energy and a different kind of economy, perhaps a different kind of democracy. The middle class fears the loss of the warmth of status even more than the loss of cool stuff. Without hope and without imagination, we fear a future that might be too much like a fearsome image of the past.

" You would think global warming and extinction of species would scare us to death," says author Frances Moore Lappe, "but the truth is that we're even more scared of being different, of breaking with the pack."

What happens to humans when fear becomes a permanent condition? What does it look like then? Is it invisible?

The primal fear is death, or is it? One's definition of death depends on one's definition of life. There is also the fear of losing what you depends on for life, regardless of whether life is possible without it. Or fear of losing yourself, or your conception of yourself. Fear of abandonment. Of insufficiency from within, without, around.

When you face a threat that others don't understand, your fear is amplified; your fear may be of them as much as of the threat itself. "Nobody loves you when you're down and out…Everybody loves you when you're six feet in the ground," John Lennon sang, and everybody loves him, now that he's dead. But during his lifetime: "Everybody's hustling for a buck and a dime. I'll scratch your back, you knife mine."

Fear is not itself an illusion. Fear is felt, tasted. When the object of fear is not an object but a subject, a situation, an idea of safety, normality, peace…then fear may be mistaken, misdirected, misconceived. Or it may be dead on. It may tell you what you don't want to know. Fear, fear is a man's best friend.

But fear awakens fear. Fear may be where the night goes hunting. Fear is the dark forest where the mind stalks itself.

Fear is not an illusion. Fear has to be faced.

And what happens when we lose what we fear to lose, because we fear to lose it?

Or because we are so afraid of the invisible enemy, that we don't pay attention to the ones we could see if we only opened our eyes?

The face of fear may be the face in the mirror.

No comments: