ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG
What Are We Afraid Of?
Roxie is afraid of stairs, especially the open-backed variety, which must look peculiar from where she stands, as if the whole apparatus is floating in the air with nothing to hold it up. Like one of those Escher paintings. She’s afraid going up and afraid going down. But she does it anyway because upstairs is where we sleep and downstairs is the way to breakfast in the morning.
Sometimes she reaches out a paw to test the stair and then takes it back, making little cries in her throat, but sooner or later she figures out a way to get herself up or down.
Some days are easier than others, but, still, it is with bravery that she begins and ends each and every day.
I admire her for that, but also wonder about myself and our society and our version of Roxie’s stairs and what difference does it make if we go up or down or just stay where we are.
I also wonder how we are shaped by what we fear, and, even more, our response, do we allow ourselves to know that fear is what it is, or does it masquerade as something else. Anger comes to mind.
And if fear is seen as weakness and anger strength, then what do we call it when anger is masking fear.
Fear is a thread woven in the history of this place, sometimes in plain sight, as when the pious hanged accused witches in Puritan New England. The colonists were afraid of the forest where they imagined Satan lurking in the darkness, and of Indians whose ‘savagery’ consisted mostly of how much they enjoyed living free and in their bodies, without shame. They were frightened by temptation and longing for ways of living buried far back in their cultural memory, replaced by the fear of offending a vengeful God.
They were afraid of those who came after and did not share their faith, banishing Quakers and Baptists, among others.
These are among our Founding Fears, and, ever since, in a nation where almost everyone is from somewhere else, there are always those marked as foreigners, outsiders, strangers, invaders, to be suspected, feared, blamed, and driven out when things go wrong.
This is why there has never been a self-proclaimed ‘American people’ that does not exclude large portions of the population.
Insecurity and fear are what haunt a nation founded on stealing a continent from its inhabitants, declaring by example to the world that it’s all right to take what you can, that competition and struggle against one another is a fitting way to decide the outcome of our lives. And, of course, the world takes notice of this open invitation to come and do the same.
I suppose it’s no surprise that we are one of the most heavily armed populations in the world.
Fear is at the heart of our national story—fear of government and fear of anarchy, fear of criminals and fear of police, fear of workers and fear of bosses, of the masses and the elite; fear of terrorists and fascists, subversives and traitors; fear of the left, fear of the right; fear of atheists and fundamentalists and papists and Muslims and religious deniers and the religiously indifferent. Fear of needing help, of not being able to stand alone, of abandonment, failure, loneliness, and loss. And, of course, fear of black people and white people and brown people and all ‘those people’ yet to be named who are taking over, or about to, come to take what ‘we’ have, as soon as they get the chance and we let down our guard.
Fear can keep us up at night, searching the internet for confirmation of who we think ‘those people’ are and what they’re up to now. Watch how Democrats and Republicans make each other up, or whites and people of color, immigrants and the native born, city people and country folk, the one percent and the ninety-nine.
I don’t want to give the impression that fear cannot be useful. A friend of mine used to be a champion parachute jumper, and while I have a certain admiration for her, there is no way you’re getting me to leave a plane that isn’t on the ground. It is a fear I intend to keep.
Where I get into trouble is when I’m afraid and don’t know fear is what it is. It inclines me to make bad choices, like the man jumping from the plane out of fear of what other men will think of him if he does not. Or he picks the fight, starts the argument, turns against a neighbor, goes to war.
Or gets angry, and stays angry all the time.
There is enough anger in this country to float a boat from one coast to the other. No doubt some of it is useful, there being things to be angry about as a way to focus our attention on what needs to be changed. I have no problem being angry about a system that makes it almost impossible for millions of people to earn a decent living. Or where women are assaulted and harassed. Or a black or Latino sounding same is enough to put you out of the running for a job.
But I suspect that beneath much of that anger is a mass of old fear that we dare not acknowledge because it would scare us even more. The fear of discovering that ‘America is a white country’ has always been a temporary and exclusive state of mind. That there is no American ethnicity to tell us who we are and where and with whom we belong. That we really are in the same boat together, all of us, and that we always were. That we have grown up, generation after generation, without knowing the whole of the history that got us here and what it costs. That the so-called middle class is mostly smoke and mirrors and the American Dream comes true just often enough to make everyone else believe the lie that it’s possible for all. That we are not the best country in the world, and that it doesn’t really matter.
It is the fear of things falling apart, inside and out, of nothing to hold on to, a loss of identity and worth, leaving us trapped in our individualism and the freedom that it grants us to be lonely, unattached, and lost.
It is a lot to be afraid of. And as with all fear, in our response to it, we find out who we are.
All my life I have watched Americans attack one another, focusing their fear into anger directed at the imagined cause—the enemy, the “anything-but,” as if all would be well if only those people could be made to disappear.
This is where countries can become monstrous, or fall apart, making war on others or themselves. Look around. It happens all the time. It has happened here.
But it doesn’t have to, not again, if we can investigate our fear long enough to see what it’s about, and what it’s not. That what is happening now is the latest version of insecurity and conflict that have been endemic to this nation from before its beginning. That we find ourselves, all of us—through birth or immigration—landed in a strange place full of contradiction and pain and dark secrets, that has depended on generations of forgetting and denial.
And generations of anger and fear directed at one another, distracting us from the one thing with the power to bring us together—if only we will take hold and let it—which is our common fate of having inherited a society that is designed to drive us apart.
The entire arc of our history has brought us to this place, primed to turn on one another rather than face the legacy of a country we did not create but that belongs to us now. And will become no more or less than what we make of what we have been given.