I’ve been writing this over the weekend between Halloween and the American presidential election, following a major hurricane essentially closing down the northeastern United States for two days, once again drawing attention to the question of human caused global climate change; when both news and entertainment media have reached some sort of crescendo in giving people things to be afraid of. Meanwhile I’m sitting here in a state of low-grade stress over the state of paperwork that actually makes relatively little difference in the big picture of things, wondering what, if anything I should really be afraid of in life.
Stereotypical horror movies and thrillers have to do with people facing the threat of something important being taken away from them: their lives, their families, their homes, their basic freedoms, their social respectability, their chances of being loved, etc. Other’s play off of deep-seated fight or flight reflexes when faced with certain stimuli: blood, corpses, snakes, spiders, storms… whatever. Rationally or irrationally, people get the impression that they stand to lose their life or something else very important to them, and they freak out with a massive adrenalin rush.
I have to confess a certain ambivalence towards all of these. At this age I’m largely numb to such artificial stimulations of fear reflexes, and to one extent or another, at various points along the way, I’ve already lost most of the things (other than my life and health) that thrillers and politicians try to play off of threats to. The thing I’d be most unquestionably willing to stand up and fight for, at the expense of my own life if necessary, would be the safety and well-being of my sons; but they are adults already, more capable of protecting and taking care of themselves than I am of taking care of either of them. As a divorced father and a foreigner in Finland every part of my closeness to them as children that could be stolen from me was stolen from me. Threats to what I have left in terms of home, respectability and opportunities for love are not particularly worth worrying about at this point.
Over the past year and some, with my African experiences and all, I’ve faced the possibility of my own death many times: I clobbered myself in the head with an axe, I locked myself into a confined space with an alpha-male baboon, I was involved in a traffic incident where a pickup slammed into me as I was riding a bicycle, I got lost by bicycle in one of South Africa’s most dangerous slums, I faced a cobra in the wild at a distance of less than two meters, and then last month I had a car burst into flames while I was driving it. All of these are true stories which, in retrospect, were matters of my own carelessness and probably weren’t that big a deal. Yes, in theory any one of those incidents could have got me killed, but they are now stories I just tell for laughs. When I die it is likely to be from something predictable and boring, probably related to long-term effects of diet and lifestyle. I’m trying to make adjustments so as to not rush that process, but fear for my life is not a major part of my everyday existence.
I also had encounters with large cockroaches, large spiders and once with a scorpion in my apartment in Africa last year. The scorpion would have objectively been the most dangerous of these, but those who know tell me that its sting wouldn’t have killed me; it would have just made me wish I was dead. Yes, I must admit, the idea of extreme pain of many sorts makes me very uncomfortable. I’m not at all sure that I would hold up well to waterboarding, fingernail removal or dentistry without Novocain, to say nothing of kidney stones or scorpion stings. On that level there are plenty of things capable of frightening me in terms of the threat of physical pain, but in the cinema or the media these things are actually rather unlikely to have much of an effect on my adrenalin levels.
As I age I’ve noticed that my luxuriant hair and unusually sharp eyes have been getting noticeably thinner and weaker in recent years. Nor can I run as fast as I used to or work as hard as I once could without getting tired. So far that too is more of a joke than a serious threat for me, but I wonder sometimes of the aging process is something I should be more afraid of. I actually don’t see the point though; it’s happening to me at the same rate as to pretty much anyone else of my generation. The real question is, have I got enough done with my various physical capacities before progressively losing them? I hope there is still time to deal with my various forms of laziness in that regard before I lose my faculties entirely though.
What about the world at large? Should I be afraid of what will be happening to the environment, the economy, personal freedoms, etc.? On one level I hope to do my part in enabling my own sons and those young people in whose lives I’ve personally invested as a teacher to be able to grow up, have children of their own, and raise them in a safe, secure and enjoyable environment –– not in a continuous state of war or the leftover destruction therefrom –– but I’m not going to waste too much energy getting paranoid about such things. It is extremely unlikely that any of these in whom I have this sort of personal investment will ever have life as difficult or dangerous in physical terms as does my black friend George in Cape Town; to say nothing of their security and well-being ever dropping to the level of that of residents of Gugulethu –– the slum I got lost in that time –– or of the refugees moving back and forth between Syria and Iraq these days.
My ancestors 150 years ago in the Netherlands actually lived through a rather brutal struggle for existence on the heath land outside of the small villages there, comparable in many ways to what I witnessed in Africa. Food, shelter and medical care could never be taken for granted. They lost as many children on average as they saw through to adulthood. I want to work to insure that the risk of returning to that state of affairs is as small as possible for those close to me. I also want to help get as many people as possible who are still in such a state of affairs out of it. But this is less a matter of fear for me than it is a matter of sorrow at current ongoing suffering and hope for improvements in the future.
When it comes to politics, on one level I am afraid that those who have no concept of human suffering and the difficulties of the world’s poor will make matters worse for them. This has been going on for most of human history already, so I don’t see it as a new and horrible threat. I just hope that we can limit the callous disregard for the poor of our own generation slightly better than our ancestors did. Alas, worldwide since the 1980s, with the exception of the ending of Apartheid, things seem to have been going in the wrong direction in this regard pretty much across the board. Things are not hopeless, but things are not getting better as they should be.
Beyond this there is the question of the impact we are having on our environment(s). On a smaller scale there is absolutely nothing new about this. Since mankind discovered fire people have been dying of carbon-monoxide poisoning and other effects of pollution caused by each other’s lifestyles. The early residents of the Easter Islands managed to deforest the whole territory, thus making life as they knew it there impossible to continue. It doesn’t seem at all likely that we will drive our entire species extinct with this sort of short-sighted behavior, but we are almost certain to kill millions of people through greedy struggles for resources or accidental carelessness a few more times before the end of human history. The only real question as far as the environment is concerned is how far the radical changes we are causing will effect which parts of the world are inhabitable for humans and which aren’t , and how many billions of poor people will end up dying because of this? In the case of the Dust Bowl and many other environmental disasters over the years –– including the various extinctions or near extinctions plants and animals vital to the economies of the times –– people have shown a remarkable ability to ignore warnings and believe that they can continue on with their ultimately self-destructive lifestyles until long after the problem becomes too obvious to ignore. Do I want to try to prevent such problems? Of course. Do they seriously scare me personally? Not so much.
Other stereotypical aspects of fear or terror to be addressed are those of the supernatural sort: witches, demons, werewolves, ghosts and various sorts of reanimated dead people. It would be fair to say that even the most superstitious among us would be willing to admit that these fears are more a matter of getting an adrenalin rush out of old wives tales than anything else. Are there historical precedents for some of these story types? Sure. Is there any reason for me to be afraid of them? I seriously doubt it.
The most plausible threat among these would be demon possession, which, regardless of your supernatural beliefs, in the vast majority of cases at least can be explained quite well as some form of mental illness or another. That doesn’t make such people any less creepily destructive to themselves and those around them, but it puts the actual powers they have into perspective. Perhaps more frightening to me than the risk of demons taking over people’s bodies though is the fact that more American Republicans believe in this than believe in human caused global warming. The one is supernatural explanation of an extremely limited phenomenon at best, and an overly dramatized old wives’ tale at worst; the other is a scientific hypothesis to explain strong globally observable trends that increasingly effect everyday life. If increased tornados and rising sea levels are explained as unavoidable acts of God, or as signs of God’s wrath on sinful regions, rather than as the effects of ways in which we are screwing up the planet we live on, that could lead to a lot of very bad things both socially and environmentally in the coming generations.
And that actually ties into an entirely different area of fear: evangelical Christians’ fear of the coming of the Antichrist. This is a rather bizarre phenomenon that I discussed in a blog 1½ years ago, but in essence the idea is that inevitably history as we know it will end with a powerful leader coming on the scene and convincing everyone that he will do the sort of things that for the past 2500 years the Jews have been expecting their Messiah to do when he comes: establishing world peace, providing justice for the poor, ushering in a new age of prosperity, etc. According to Bible prophesy though, this presumed hero consequently turns out to be the ultimate villain, eventually using the personal power he amasses to prevent the free worship of God and to establish absolute control over the national and global economy. This sort of reading of the book of Revelation is the mother of all dystopias. Basically every particularly strong American or world leader since Abraham Lincoln –– anyone presenting viable promises of unity, peace and prosperity without sucking up to the evangelical Christian community in the process –– has been labeled as a potential Antichrist.
There are of course many ways of interpreting such Biblical teachings, ranging from the various “reinterpretations through fresh revelation” that happened in mid-nineteenth century America to the complete dismissal of Revelation as gnostic nonsense that the fourth century church was mistaken to include in the cannon of scripture. My own current take on such matters is rather ambivalent, but there are a few things I know for sure:
– The writers of the Bible were somewhat surprised and disappointed not to see Jesus’ return in glory and the final battle of the apocalypse within their own lifetimes. That in itself should tell us something.
– The theme of power corrupting otherwise good and effective leaders is an eternally relevant theme unto itself, which isn’t necessarily any more relevant to one strong leader than another.
– Persecutions of Christians and other groups for their religious identities have been happening on a more or less regular basis since long before the book of Revelation was written. It’s hard to imagine how any final fulfillment of tale told there could still be unique or especially fear-worthy in that regard.
– In the end of the story in Revelation, after an intense war much shorter than the current Iraq War, “good” wins and remains triumphant for 1000 years (roughly half the amount of time that has passed since its writing), so believers who are actually expecting such things to happen really shouldn’t be all that scared to begin with.
Yet in spite of all that, labeling someone as an Antichrist remains an effective fear-mongering tool among certain Christian groups. Under these circumstances I actually find assertions that some politician or another is the Anti-Christ to be far more embarrassing than frightening.
But taking things from a Biblical perspective, one of the most psychologically profound verses in the Bible, which was actually written by the same fellow who wrote the Revelation, is 1 John 4:18: There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
As I see it that can be taken in at least two ways: First of all love implies trust and good will towards each other. Torturing the loved one and getting into power struggles just to prove who’s in charge are imperfections in love. If we can believe that there’s an all-powerful God out there who loves us too perfectly to allow our lives to randomly become hell, we really have nothing to be afraid of. Having this sort of confidence can enable us to live in a fearless way that can enable us to be far more productive in life. But then there is the Bible’s book of Job which contemplates the fact that sometimes we do end up going through hell in ways that don’t figure with our understanding of a just and loving God being out there taking care of us. There are many interpretations on this one, but the only thing that is clear is that bad things do happen to good people and we all have our limits. So the blind trust that nothing will ever go wrong with God watching out for us can lead to all sorts of problems and disappointments in life. All things in moderation on that one I say, and on to other aspects of the verse.
Beyond providing a sort of imaginary safety net for other forms of happiness though, I believe that love provides a form of happiness unto itself that trumps all others. This is what I was talking about in terms of happiness by way of connection. The more perfect the love, the less risk there is that it will break down and leave one feeling isolated and abandoned. Beyond that, love gives one a sense that something significant about me that will go on after my physical life is over. Thus love is in many respects more important than life itself. If you know that you are loved –– that you are somehow deeply and personally connected with other people and/or things/principles beyond yourself –– that makes it a lot easier not to be afraid of various forms of crap that life brings your way. Perfect love enables you to know that what is ultimately most important to you in life can never be taken away from you.
Have I ever experienced truly perfect love? Of course not, but I have had some pretty satisfying and lasting personal connections, and I hope to have still more of them and better ones before my life is over. Building such connection, and in this way “looking for love” is in many respects the purpose of my life. Reading, writing, on-line interactions, teaching and trying to promote various forms of humanitarian work are all part of this for me. If these connections are real no one can take them away from me. The better they are, the less I have to be afraid of in all other aspects of life.
In the worst case scenario of Romney getting elected, or of a new US civil war breaking out because of redneck hatred for Obama, thousands if not millions of people around the world will die unnecessarily because of generalized American stupidity. There is nothing unprecedented about this though; people have been dying because of the callous greed and stupidity of others since the beginning of time. And among those who are at greater risk of dying because of American political policies clearly for many of them their own stupidity also figures into the question. So we’re not talking about a terror dystopia here; we’re talking about forms of gross injustice that we’ve always had continuing and intensifying. Of course I want to do everything I can to prevent that from happening, but am I afraid of it? Not in the strictest sense of the word.
The apocalyptic visions of those on the religious and economic far right probably serve as far better tools for fear-mongering than what anyone left of center has to offer, and sadly fear is often a far more effective motivational tool than hope when it comes to politics. I would like to believe that most of my countrymen are not so dumb as to fall for that, but there is a reasonably good chance that they might be.
That leaves me with the moral question: if the only way to save lives is to try to artificially scare the crap out of people, does that make fear-mongering the morally right thing to do? Perhaps in some cases it could be, but at this point I’m not inclined to believe that such an end would justify such a means. Increasing people’s sense of fear has a way of getting out of control, not to mention all of the intangible satisfactions in life that living in fear steals from everyone. If I’m going to complain about American Republicans putting their party interest ahead of the good of the country and the world, it would be hypocritical to start harming people’s sense of well-being for the sake of political advantage for the other side.
So even if hope to save millions of lives is not as effective a political tool as an artificial apocalypse or a self-fulfilling prophesy of mass destruction, I’m sticking with the former. If the worst happens because of this, I can face my fears and believe that my life has hope, value and purpose regardless. I hope the rest of you can too.