UNRAVELING THE KNOT

ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG

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After the Election: Wrestling the Angel of Fear

Hearing the news of the Trump election makes me think of the afternoon when I heard George W. Bush announce on the car radio that he was launching the country into a state of perpetual war. I was beside myself with rage, screaming at the windshield, calling him names, going on a rant about the suffering and destruction that would result.

Later on, realizing that my country was doing what it has done many times before, the anger gave way to despair.

What I did not know then was that despair was a way to manage fear, which was evident from the numbing and compacting of my heart, as if my entire self was being reduced to fit a dark space small enough to crowd out the fear.

I was frightened by what the president had done, just as many are afraid today of what may be coming. This time, however, I feel neither rage nor despair, and I think it’s worth asking why the difference between then and now.

One clue comes from many years ago when I was visiting my mother in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and one day we decided to go to the swimming pool outside of town. We walked to the bus stop. The time printed on the schedule came and went, but not the bus. We talked. The sun rose in the sky, a beautiful day. We stepped into the shade. She sensed my impatience, looked at me and smiled, a little shrug, “It’s all right,” she said, “there’s always another bus.”

Maybe. And maybe not. Either way, there is something in the act of waiting that reminds me of despair, waiting for a bus that may never come. There is something in despair that is a holding out, a refusing to let go, to accept that things are what they are, a refusal that Buddhists tell us is where suffering begins.

We wait for leaders who will save us from our history and ourselves, only to be disappointed, our hope turning first to anger and then despair (which may help explain why almost half of the electorate did not vote).

The bus was nowhere to be seen, but my mother was right there beside me, who would one day be dead and gone, and there was the street and the people passing by, the sight of a donkey laden with firewood, walking slowly up the hill, a small boy close behind. Birds and their songs. The crisp dryness of high desert air.

But the bus was not here.

There is no bus.

A second clue comes from my experience speaking on race and gender, when someone asks, “But what can I do?” There is something in the ‘but,’ and the tone, that gives me pause, because I think the question is less about doing than it is about fending off fear and despair. As the philosopher, George Yancy, puts it, the rush to find a solution can be a way to remove ourselves from the present—where we are involved in the world that produces injustice, suffering, and fear—and into a future where we are not. It is an escape from having to sit with the reality of how things are and what that has to do with us.

I once thought hope was the antidote to despair, but I’ve come to believe it’s not. The two are so closely coupled that we cannot have one without the other. ‘I hope the bus will come soon’ not only gives myself over to waiting for something that exists only in my mind, but does so with a particular dedication, chin up, eyes scanning the street corner around which I hope it will come. Any minute now. All the while I am oblivious to the world going on around me, there being nothing else for me but a bus that isn’t here.

To not indulge in despair, or in hope, is to not indulge in being anywhere but here, what Pema Chodron calls ‘nailing ourselves to the present,’ to things as they really are. There is no quick fix for sadness and pain, no easy deliverance from fear, but in the present our choices are made clear, including standing with my mother until a bus may come or we decide to do something else. Either way, not waiting in this moment, I leave hope behind, it only producing still more hope that is all too close to despair.

I write books. I give speeches and workshops and facilitate conversations. How does hope figure into that? What is it that I hope to achieve?

The truth is that I hope for nothing at all. There isn’t time. I write and speak to help break the silence around privilege and oppression. I write novels about the human condition. I think out loud about what trouble we are in and who we are in relation to it and what it’s like for me and how we might respond.

But I have no way of knowing what difference any of it makes. One day to the next, it does not matter what I hope will happen. It only matters what I do.

To give up hope is not to accept things as they are. I am appalled by the president-elect and the renewed license for intimidation and violence that has shown itself since the election. But I also must accept that things are as they are. As I drove down the road years ago, screaming at the president, I was having a moment of non-acceptance, propelled by fear that turned quickly to despair. I was insisting that George Bush be different from the man he had always shown himself to be, and I was furious to be living in a country that would make him president. And I responded as if personally betrayed, as if it wasn’t fair, an outrageous violation of some law by which such things are not supposed to happen.

Just as many have reacted to the election of Donald Trump.

We had hoped for something better.

But it is one thing to be angry at how things are and another to indulge in a despair that is more about how I feel about the world than what I am prepared to do. Despair keeps me from asking what is needed here and now, the only place where anything is possible, knowing that things will not be as they might have been, except in looking back through a kind of longing anchored by hope on one end and despair on the other.

When I spoke at Penn State about men’s violence some years ago, an elderly man came up to thank me afterward. He relied on a pair of canes and spoke with difficulty, as if he’d had a stroke. He was about to leave when he leaned in and looked at me and said, his voice low and earnest, “You keep going.” And as he turned to walk away, I said, “You keep going, too,” and then he paused, his face full of thought, gathering intent, a nod. “I think I will.”

I remember the stillness in his face as he made up his mind, as he must have so many times before, every day, a look of clarity and calm, of acceptance not only without hope and despair, but without fear, a condition that a Quaker friend of mine once offered as a definition of faith.

Faith, she said, is not a belief in something—if I do this then that will happen—or that something beyond my control will come to pass, that things will somehow turn out okay. Faith is the freedom from fear, a condition in which we may feel afraid but without allowing ourselves to become the fear, to be afraid.

There is much to fear these days, beginning with the president-elect’s legislative plans, his denial of climate change, his childish macho bravado, his contempt for women, his blatant racism, his staggering arrogance and lack of experience and knowledge, his inability to focus his mind or tell the truth.

It makes sense to feel overwhelmed in the face of this. We are only human, after all, and we have not been prepared. Instead, we have, for generations, been encouraged to see ourselves as passive consumers rather than active citizens, our minds distracted and pacified and colonized to accept the status quo or to pin ourselves to the hope for something better.

We have been trained to be easily overwhelmed and immobilized, dis-couraged with little awareness of our responsibility or power.

We have been desensitized to the pain of others, and hypersensitized to our own, taught to see pain not as a message, a wake-up call, but as something noxious to be escaped, silenced, anaesthetized.

But we cannot afford to be overwhelmed or swallowed by despair. Like the parent of a desperately ill child, we don’t get to disappear into not knowing what to do. For a day or two, perhaps, but then we have to step in and give it up and reacquaint ourselves with the courage of faith.

I once heard Mary Daley describe courage not as something that we have, a quality of character that we bring to the moment. Instead, courage is what happens in the moment when we act even though we are afraid. And perhaps that is what my Quaker friend was telling me about faith, as a way of being, brought on by what we do.

The point is not to never be afraid, which is impossible, but to know where fear leaves off and faith begins in that moment when we choose to act whether we are afraid or not. “When I dare to be powerful,” wrote Audre Lorde, “to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

The challenge of these times is to inhabit the space between accepting that the world is as it is and refusing to accept that it should remain so.

But we do not come to the challenge equally.

I’m recalling a group where talk about race turned to the subject of hope, and I said something about not believing in that, it being too close to despair, that I believe the key is faith, in not becoming the fear.

I remember the silence that followed and the very different reaction of whites and blacks in the room, with black people nodding in agreement as they looked about, and white people staring down at the table and shaking their heads.

When I consider the difference, it occurs to me that being able to choose between hope and despair comes of the freedom to sit on the sidelines and watch from the relative safety of being white. And when things go badly and we sink into despair, hope comes riding to the rescue, promising to lift our hearts, that things will work out, somehow, someday, against the odds. Whether we do anything or not.

Hope is better suited to feeling than action, for it does not so much galvanize as soothe, a refuge from despair, that does not hold us to account.

Faith, on the other hand, comes of having to wrestle the angel of fear, whose power faith would harness into action. Faith is what turns a crowd of individuals into a march and then a movement. Where hope is passive and content, faith has an agenda and makes demands.

I suspect that most people of color cannot afford to spend themselves on hope, because oppression is too immediate, every day, generation after generation, forcing them to pull together, to find strength in solidarity. And to know that in the moment of confronting power, the kind that hurts and even kills, the choice is not between despair and hope, but fear and faith.

Which is the choice confronting us all.

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For related posts, see:

Clueless in Columbia: The Unbearable Weight of White Inertia
The Truth about Preaching to the Choir
The Myth of Peaceful Protest
What Can We Do? Becoming the Question
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I trace the origin of this post to the feminist activist and writer, Starhawk, who wrote in the aftermath of the U.S. response to 9/11 that “we must not indulge in despair.”

George Yancy, Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness. Temple University Press, 2013.

Pema Chodron has authored several books, including When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Shambhala, 2000.

I heard Mary Daly speak on courage at the 2001 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Audre Lorde quote is from The Cancer Journals. Aunt Lute Books, 1997.

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.

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