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Narratives of Terror and the Courage to Be

fear-chainThere are a lot of highly concerned and rational people today who are being held back from stepping out, speaking up, and taking the lead into a better future for our planet. It’s not exactly that someone else is holding them back, even though that’s how many would try to rationalize their current situation. We’d like to think there is someone over there who is keeping us in our frozen state, and that if only they will leave us alone we will be happy.

This turns out to be little more than an excuse, however, because the real cause of our paralysis is internal to ourselves, not out there somewhere else.

I propose the existence of something I’ll call “the fear chain,” which gets forged especially during those critical years of our early conditioning. Parents, teachers, coaches, and other handlers conspired in teaching us that certain things (and people) are dangerous – or potentially so. When we were very young we were cautioned against talking with strangers – along with playing in the street, running with scissors, and touching hot stoves. Such things were “dangerous,” and engaging with them would likely put us at significant risk.

Whether or not they consciously realized it, these influential adults were servo-mechanisms in our socialization, whereby the animal nature of our body was trained to behave according to the rules and rhythms of cultural life. Already programmed by millions of years of evolution, our body came equipped with some basic instincts, the most persistent of which is our drive for self-preservation.

In some form or fashion, all the other instincts – for attachment, food, shelter, sex, and reproductive success – are variations of our primal commitment to staying alive.

This drive to stay alive might also be characterized as an innate fear of death, of avoiding or seeking escape from anything that threatens survival – particularly predators, venom, toxins and tainted food; along with genuinely high-risk situations of exposure, violence, or unstable and precarious environments. While not as primal, perhaps, anything that represented the possibility of injury was linked to our fear of death, since, if serious enough, an injury might very well result in our loss of life.

In this linking fashion, numerous secondary associations were forged and anchored to our compulsive need to live – and not die.

Such association-by-linking should make you think of links in a chain, and this is exactly how I am proposing that the fear chain comes into existence. A primal (and mostly unconscious) fear of death got linked out to situations, objects, and other people who presented a risk of injury to us. And just like that, the primitive energy dedicated to staying alive was channeled into attitudes and behaviors of avoidance, suspicion, and self-defense. From that point on, the possibility of injury started to drive what we did, where we went, and with whom.

This concept of a fear chain suggests that the paralysis many people feel today is a complication of how we have been socialized – not just when we were children but even now under the tutelage of the politicians, preachers, journalists, and jihadists who spin our collective perceptions of reality. In this case, those deeper fears of injury and death get linked to the more normal experiences of loss.

Almost as much as we fear losing our lives or losing our minds, we dread the loss of wealth and opportunity, of time and freedom, of the way we were, or what we thought we could accomplish and become.

Socialization is largely dedicated to the project of constructing our identity – not what we are as human beings, but who we are as members of cultures, nations, classes, and tribes. This project is carried out through a process of forming attachments to the people, places, things, and beliefs that define us and form our horizon of meaning. Identity and attachment, then, are simply two sides of the same coin, with one (identity) the product of the other (attachment).

If we return to our natural and socially conditioned fear of injury, we can see how threats to our attachments amount to a kind of assault on our person. This is how the fear chain is forged with still another link: the (threatened or real) loss of an attachment is experienced as an injury to our identity, which anchors still farther down into our instinctual fear of death.

The stronger the attachment – that is, the more central it is to who (we think) we are – the more we fear losing it.

I wonder if the fragile construct of our identity – so many attachments, so much dependency – is what makes us so afraid of failure these days; of not being ‘successful’ or ‘good enough’. If we should try but fail, we run the risk of losing some aspect of who (we think) we are, suffering injury to our personal identity and (we irrationally believe) putting ourselves in peril of death itself. When a desired outcome isn’t achieved or we can’t get something perfect the first (or fiftieth) time, who we are and our place in the world is called into question. It’s best not to try, which allows us to keep the fantasy of identity safely above and ahead of us without the risk of being proven wrong.

Those who seek to generate an anxious urgency in us will typically use a narrative of terror to motivate us in the direction they want us to go. Such rhetoric is common from fundamentalist pulpits and during political campaigns, not to mention from those extremist wack jobs who seek to panic, disrupt, and destroy the life routines of innocent citizens. They are all united in their determination to unsettle us, tapping our amygdalas with messages of panic, outrage, and paralysis – the flight, fight and freeze responses hardwired into our brain circuitry.

For the relatively disengaged citizenry of liberal democracies, freezing is the majority option: we stop, stare, hold our breath and shake our heads, waiting for the stupor to pass before crawling back into our rut of life-as-usual.

My theory is that these narratives of terror are the sociocultural counterpart of the fear chain, one shaping the environment of our collective life and the other priming our nervous system for survival in ‘dangerous’ times. Even though a drive to survive and the fear of death may be instinctual, our chronic anxiety over losing ourselves – of losing who (we think) we are, along with the illusion of security and control that holds us together – is entirely conditioned and not natural at all.

Indeed, the intentional release of this bundle of nerves and dogmatic convictions is the Path of Liberation as taught in the wisdom traditions of higher culture.

The question remains as to how we might effectively transform our Age of Anxiety into a Kindom (sic) of Peace, where we love and honor the whole community of life on Earth. Years ago Paul Tillich coined “the courage to be” as the high calling of our human adventure. In defiance of the narratives of terror and breaking free of the fear chain, we can step out and speak up, investing our creative authority in the New Reality we want to see.

It will take more than just a few brave souls. And it will require that we move out of complacency, through protest, into a very different narrative.

 

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Breakpoint for Religion

Heschel: “You can affect a person only if you reach his [or her] inner life, the level where every human being is insecure and feels his [or her] incompleteness, the level of awareness that lies beyond articulation.

“The soul is discovered in response, in acts of transcending the self, in the awareness of ends that surpass one’s interest and needs.”

Insecurity has two very different meanings. For Watts and Heschel (and I assume Nietzsche would concur), it describes the fact of our existence – that our survival is not guaranteed, nor are the conditions always favorable for our personal happiness and fulfillment. That’s just the way it is. The grand adventure of life and its evolutionary course in time is inherently precarious, fraught with challenges, and dependent on environmental conditions all along the way. Some environments are hospitable to living things, and some aren’t. The fact that every living organism is to an important degree at the mercy of factors outside its control makes its existence “insecure.”

Watts, especially, uses the term “insecurity” to refer to a feeling that can overwhelm the human organism. When you feel insecure, you are anxious to the point of panic over the otherwise natural limits on your ability to control what’s going on. This anxious feeling may then motivate you to take control – keeping others at a safe distance, for instance, or imposing your will on them. You might take out a stack of insurance policies against any and all possible risks.

With Heschel, insecure describes our human condition. As creatures, we are dependent on conditions of reality over which we have little authority or control. Take, for example, our need for oxygen. We can’t make oxygen, yet we need it to survive. The metabolic process that supports life in our cells, tissues and organs makes us dependent on the supply of oxygen from outside ourselves. If it isn’t there, we will die. This may sound as if we are characterizing life as internally vulnerable and weak – and in a way that is important to admit, life is (we might say) naturally deficient. None of us is “complete,” self-sufficient, or fully adequate to sustain life entirely on our own.

At the developmental level of ego where the focus shifts from  survival to identity, human existence continues to be insecure. We need belonging and recognition, but the social reality that might provide or withhold these is also outside our control. Humans that have been deliberately (or experimentally) deprived of social interaction not only end up relationally stunted as a consequence, but also fail to mature and die far earlier than normal.

Heschel refers to our “inner life” as that place where our insecurity and incompleteness are most acutely felt, which makes it sound as if the soul is something less than the transcendental center of immortality that popular religion makes it out to be. I admit, it is tempting to put the spiritual life of the soul at a level high above the temporal conditions of body and ego. While these are dependent and conditioned, soul is independent and without conditions. While they are susceptible to the complications of life in time, soul is utterly detached and immune.

Here’s the beautiful paradox: It is at the point of our deepest need, where we are absolutely dependent on what is beyond us – that is, where our insecurity is most evident and inescapable – that we are also connected to a larger reality. Our Western system of values regards dependency as weakness, as a flaw or breakdown in our intended design as self-standing and fully liberated beings. And while it does represent a limitation against our absolute freedom, need is where our presumption of self-reliance must be dropped in order to open up and receive what is needed. Dependency is where our own incompleteness may be painfully obvious, but it’s also where the larger web of life is providentially present to us.

True enough, I can simply “take” what I need and fail to respond in faith, wonder and gratitude. In all my self-preoccupation I may never become aware of my place in the grandeur of being. I need air, I need love. What’s in it for me? The rest be damned. But then, tangled up in my own insecurities and failing to respond, soul goes undiscovered.

The revolution begins tomorrow. I’ll feel better then.

 

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