Fear is a state of mind that we all know very well. Generally, we don’t think much about fear, or if we do, we think casually about it – we think about fear without actually feeling afraid and so in a sense we have forgotten the essential nature of what it is we are thinking about! We only really remember fear when it is upon us again. When fear actually hits us then we suddenly remember all about it – it all comes back to us in flash. When this happens we get the feeling that fear had never been very far away, only hidden. When we are back in that place of fear, then it is as if we had never left. This tends to give us a nasty kind of feeling – the feeling that actually we had never really escaped the fear, only escaped from knowing about it.
Emily Dickenson writes that ‘pain has an element of blank’ – once we are in it, then pain is all we can remember, and it’s also all we can envisage! “Pain has no future but itself”, she says:
Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.
It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.
Fear is exactly like this because once it hits us, then the past in which we were not afraid becomes meaningless (or somehow in a sense unbelievable), just as the future in which we will not be afraid becomes unimaginable to us. All we know is the fear, and we have no frame of reference outside of this fear. It is as if fear is all there is – fear has taken us over completely and we cannot envisage anything except from the perspective of fear. Our fear subsumes everything, it overtakes everything, it overrides everything – it blanks everything out.
When fear takes us over in this way the only thing we care about is escaping the fear. Our world shrinks to this extent. And yet, because we are operating from the perspective of fear, everything we think or do becomes an extension of that fear. When I act on the basis of fear (when I do something because of the motivation of fear) then whatever I do comes down to escaping the fear – after all, as we have said, when I am afraid then escaping the fear is the one and only thing that I am interested in. What else would I care about? If you are telling me something that will help me in this all-important aim, then I am all ears. If what you are saying will not help me to escape the fear, then it is of no interest to me. In this case, I have no ears…
There are two basic ways of escaping fear – I can either numb myself or seek distraction in some sort of attention-absorbing activity. Both of these two options are of course very popular! I can numb myself by drinking alcohol or taking tranquilizers such as diazepam, and in extreme cases I can numb myself without the aid of drugs by ‘withdrawing into myself’ and entering into a catatonic state of inactivity. Another, less extreme version of catatonic withdrawal is where I make myself ‘deliberately stupid’ by becoming very concrete and literal-minded about things. In this case I tend to think in well-established tracks’ and never allow myself to question anything or look at things in a new way. I become ‘incurious’. I stick to a safe and predictable set of protocols.
Self-distraction serves exactly the purpose as ‘withdrawal’ – it is purely about escaping pain by distracting ourselves from it. As a general rule, whenever we engage in some sort of routine activity we experience an immediately feeling of release from whatever uncomfortable feelings of fear or anxiety that were bothering us. This doesn’t mean that the fear has been dealt with – it merely means that we are no longer paying so much (if any) attention to it because our attention is on something else. This is the kind of idea Philip Pullman is getting at here (1997, P 274) in this passage taken from The Subtle Knife:
…And she had to do things that looked crazy, you couldn’t see the point of them, but obviously she could. Like her counting all the leaves, or Tullio yesterday touching the stones in the wall. Maybe that was a way of trying to put the spectres off. If they turned their back on something frightening behind them and tried to get really interested in the stones and how they fitted together, or the leaves on the bush, like if only they could make themselves find that really important, they’d be safe. I don’t know. …
Being safely distracted isn’t really the same thing as being ‘free from fear’ because the fear is of course still there. When I deliberately ignore the fear by playing stupid the fear’s still there, and when I deliberately ignore the fear by focussing on something else the fear’s still there. Obviously, the situation isn’t going to miraculously fix itself just because I haven’t got the courage to look at it!
So whether I ignore the fact of my own fear by making myself very concrete and mentally guarded, whether I make myself comfortably numb with drink or tranquilizers, or whether I endlessly distract myself with various activities or tasks makes no difference. The end result is the same – I am dealing with fear by not dealing with it. On one level I know very well that this is no good at all, but on another level, I simply don’t want to think about it. As long as I get to feel better right now, that’s all I care about! That’ll do! The trouble is, of course, that my attitude of ‘not caring about anything other than feeling better right now’ doesn’t actually do me any favours. What it does is to lock me into a particularly horrible ‘no win’ situation; it places me into a particular sort of hell – the sort of hell where I keep struggling not to acknowledge something terrifying, but where that ‘terrifying thing’ (whatever it is) keeps on breathing down my neck all the same! The best I can hope for is to keep having ‘little breaks’ from the horror of my situation every time I successfully manage to ignore what is going on, before my defences fail and the grim reality breaks all over again. My best hope is that I can delude myself that everything is okay for a short while, and maybe then a short while again after that, but this is of course no life at all! It is just a long drawn-out ‘postponing of the inevitable’ and what is the point in that?
By trying to deal with our fear by ignoring it (in whatever way we do) what we’re doing is simply ‘playing a game with ourselves’. The game is that I pretend to myself as hard as ever I can that ‘it isn’t happening’ when deep down I know that it is. The strange thing about this is that we don’t allow ourselves to see how absurd this is; we actually think that suppression of fear (or distraction from fear) is a perfectly viable option. We adapt to it so thoroughly that it all seems perfectly normal. Somehow, the habitual business of suppression/distraction gets to seem legitimate to us – we don’t spend any time reflecting on the all-important question of how much good sense there is in what we are trying to do because we don’t actually allow ourselves to see what we’re doing. We never think about how helpful it really is to be constantly ‘ignoring our own fear’ because we’ve ignored it so effectively that we no longer know that its there…
Another way of ignoring fear – that we haven’t mentioned so far – is where we work hard at submerging ourselves in a collective mass of people who are all trying to do exactly the same thing that we are! Needless to say, this is an extremely popular and extremely ‘successful’ strategy – the end result of this sort of fear-avoidance procedure is what we commonly know as ‘society’. It is a well-known fact that mobs are fearless, and that when we are part of a mob we too share the fearlessness of the mob and this same principle applies across the board to all social collusions – a collusion being where we all agree to believe in the same thing for the sake of the security that this gives us. As we’ve said, this is obvious enough in a street mob or perhaps in some fundamentalist cult or other, but exactly the same spurious ‘immunity to fear’ is obtained when we subscribe to polite and respectable society as whole – it’s exactly the same thing, whether we care to acknowledge the fact or not. Jung (1959, P 125-6) talks about this type of ‘transformation of consciousness’ in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious:
The psychology of a large crowd inevitably sinks to the level of mob psychology. If, therefore, I have a so-called collective experience as a member of a group, it takes place on a lower level of consciousness than if I had the experience by myself alone. That is why this group experience is very much more frequent than an individual experience of transformation. It is also much easier to achieve, because the presence of so many people together exerts great suggestive force. The individual in a crowd easily becomes the victim of his own suggestibility. It is only necessary for something to happen, for instance a proposal backed by the whole crowd, and we too are all for it, even if the proposal is immoral. In the crowd one feels no responsibility, but also no fear.
But fear can’t really be shucked off as conveniently this. We can’t hand it over in the same way that we like to hand over responsibility for ‘how to see the world’ by signing up to the official consensus viewpoint. My fear is my responsibility – if I think that I have gotten rid of it then I am mistaken. Fear is something personal – my fear is mine and mine alone. The burden of my fear rests on my shoulders alone – I can’t give it away no matter how I want to! No one can take this responsibility away from me; the terror I feel is legitimately mine, which is another way of saying that I can’t shuffle it off onto anyone else, or get rid of it by joining a group, or by hoping that it will just go away of its own accord if I ignore it determinedly enough.
What we’re saying here is that fear isn’t just ‘chemicals in our brain’, but an inevitable, inescapable, essential part of the human condition. It is a kind of demand that life puts on us – it is part of being human, or being alive. If it were possible to surgically amputate fear then the price of this would be that I would no longer be genuinely human, or genuinely alive. I would just be some kind of zombie. I would be a hollow shell. Saying that fear is ineradicably part of life sounds depressing but the only reason we think this is because we are so very determined to avoid the challenge that it poses us. The challenge it poses us when it comes down to it is the challenge of actual existence!
What happens if we accept this challenge instead of refusing it? A good way to think about this is to ask a very similar question, and think about ‘difficulty’ rather than fear. Life, as psychotherapist Morgan Scott Peck has observed, is difficult. This, he asserts, is one of the most basic and essential things you can say about life. Life and difficulty are practically the same thing – if you avoid one, you avoid the other, and vice versa. If you cleverly avoid all difficulty in life you find that you have also cleverly avoided life, and so then what you are left with is more like some sort of ‘living death’ than anything else.
Difficulty is the basic challenge that life throws at us, and if we accept it we gain something precious as a result. What we gain is life because it is only when we allow ourselves to be tested by difficulty that we discover what life is all about. Plato is often quoted as having said that ‘a life unexamined is a life not worth living’. Another version of this quote is ‘a life untested is a life not worth living’. When difficulty comes along (as it will) and I do not cleverly avoid it, then I discover resources that I did not know that I had before. More than this, I discover a whole world that I did not previously know to be there! Through taking on difficulty a hitherto unsuspected world opens up to me. Basically, it is through difficulty that we learn and grow and if we refuse the challenge of difficulty then we do not learn and we do not grow. Quite the reverse is true.
What is true for ‘difficulty’ in general is also true for fear. If we refuse the challenge of fear then life becomes a type of living death – life becomes one long, agonizingly drawn-out avoidance of the inevitable. So what happens if we accept the challenge? This is really a very curious sort of a thing. When we don’t face fear head on but instead adapt to it in the way that we have been describing then what we have actually done here is that we have created our own over-simplified version of reality, and then withdrawn into it as if it were the only reality that there is. We have down-sized ourselves and retreated into a kind of ‘false reality’ – a reality that is made up of stuff that we agree to be real, and then agree never to question. This is of course the basis of games – a game is where we get to say what is real and what is not real, it is where we get to call the shots, where we get to regulate or control the meaning of everything that goes on. There is uncertainty in a game but it is only trivial uncertainty – it is ‘uncertainty with regard to the petty details’. Trivial uncertainty is no challenge at all to us really because no matter how it pans out we know how it’s going to pan out!
Withdrawing from the real, open-ended world into the very limited world of trivial uncertainty is how we engineer our escape from fear! The point about this strategy is that we have locked and bolted all the doors so that there is nothing that can enter into the situation that we have not already ‘passed’ as being ok, as being ‘safe’. We have replaced life with a kind of formulaic protocol that we stick to like glue, and we justify the fact that we are sticking to it like glue by saying that our limited and formulaic system of protocols is life itself, and that there isn’t anything else other than this dull and tiresome old business!
If we reflect on this basic idea we can see that it isn’t really so strange or outlandish a suggestion at all; of course this is what we do when we are afraid – we shut down, we retreat into our ‘safe place’, we retreat into our own over-simplified private world. Of course in the case of society as a whole it is not immediately obvious that we are shutting down or retreating because everyone else is doing the exact same thing. But all this means that we’re all doing it in unison, which has the effect that the particular formulaic way of life that we adapt to gets to be collectively validated for us, and so it doesn’t seem like a way of ‘opting out’, which is what it really is. Naturally colluding is always opting out – what else would it be! The reason we collude is the escape the essential risk in life, which is the risk of ‘existence itself’, as Paul Strathern (1997, P 55) states in his book on the philosopher Kierkegaard:
Existence is a colossal risk. We can never know whether the way we choose to live is the right way. Anyone who realizes this fully, who makes himself consciously aware of it, is bound to feel anguish, according to Kierkegaard. Such subjective truths, supported by no objective evidence, are grounded on nothing. Literally. We thus come to know the nothingness of existence, the utter uncertainty that lies at its heart. Life is fundamentally tentative and elusive.
The way that we avoid ‘the risk of existence’ is by creating ‘a lower analogue of life’, a safe, predictable, sanitized, ‘risk-free’ simulation which we then proceed to stick to for all we are worth, claiming as we do so that what we’re sticking to so concretely, so zealously, so unadventurously, so cravenly is in fact ‘life itself’, the ‘authorized version’ – and that anything else that isn’t the safe analogue (the orthodox view) doesn’t really exist, is a made-up thing, is a heretical fantasy of some sort. We claim that anything else is a product of a dangerously deranged mind! Anyone who isn’t willing to play this sublimely dull and terminally pointless game of ours we loudly denounce as being odd, as being peculiar, as being a misfit or eccentric, as being a crank, a freak, a hippy, an escapist, or even as being mentally ill!
But what happens if we do take up the challenge; what happens if we forbear to avoid the risk of existence and as a consequence do face up to our deepest fear?
What happens when we leave the beaten track, what happens when we bravely exit the sterile collective delusion and venture into the unknown?
And the most important question of all perhaps: “Do we really want to know?”
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.