Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Mind Killer: Thoughts On Fear

First, some quotes:

No power is strong enough if it labors under the weight of fear. [Marcus Tullius Cicero]
Fear always springs from ignorance! [Ralph Waldo Emerson]
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it...The basest of all things is to be afraid. [William Faulkner, Nobel Prize acceptance speech]
Fear is an acid which is pumped into one's atmosphere. It causes mental, moral and spiritual asphyxiation, and sometimes death; death to all energy and growth. [Horace Fletcher]
Fear is like fire: if controlled, it will help you; if uncontrolled, it will rise up and destroy you. [John F. Milburn]
Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. [Bertrand Russell]
Courage is the complement of fear. A man who is fearless cannot be courageous. (He is also a fool.) [Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love]

Some years ago, when I was crafting a handful of unusual protagonists for a novel about an unusual family, I had occasion for an extended reflection upon fear. Among the emotions, it alone is "wholly horrible" [C. S. Lewis]. Yet it is one of the two motivators critical to the mentality required for survival. Maslow's Hierarchy should make that obvious. But there's that word again...the one that really means overlooked.

Among the reactions a military recruit must be conditioned to suppress is the fear-powered impulse to flee from combat. Combat is, after all, the reason he's there. To flee is to yield to the enemy. If you're going to do so reflexively, why bother to enlist? If an army is to do so at the first incoming fire, why bother to have an army?

Some armies, be it noted, have been unsuccessful at suppressing their soldiers' fear reaction. Some interesting stories, of Arab armies fleeing from numerically far smaller Israeli forces before battle was joined, came out of the Six-Day War.

Fear is the most important emotion of all in politics:

"The State is based on threat." [Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, Illuminatus!]

Governments are sustained almost entirely by the fear they engender in their subjects: fear of one another; fear of external enemies poised to strike; and fear of the government itself.

Yet a thing filled with such power is inherently useful, if it can be mastered and harnessed. "Fire and fear, good servants, bad lords," as Genly Ai says to Therem Harth rem ir Estraven in Ursula LeGuin's early masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness. Estraven says, almost wonderingly, of Genly Ai that "He makes fear serve him." But Estraven finds illumination in that remark:

I would have let fear lead me around by the long way. Courage and reason are with him. What good seeking the safe course, on a journey such as this? There are senseless courses, which I shall not take; but there is no safe one.

As the perils to life, health, and material security mount around us, it becomes ever more urgent that we find ways to master and harness our fears: each of us, and all of us.

The old are often dominated by their fears and their responses to them. I speak from experience on this. Quite a lot of my energy, in these waning years, goes to buttressing myself and my loved ones against the threats I see, or fancy that I see. I'd imagine that's true of quite a lot of us older folks. If you've had five or six decades of pleasant existence on this ball of mud, you're easily led to thinking of security above all other things:

Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is “finding his place in it,” while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of really being at home on Earth, which is just what we want. You will notice that the young are generally less unwilling to die than the old. [C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters]

Today, when the State has become predatory beyond all expectation and its eyes are everywhere, the sense of insecurity among those of us ill-equipped to fight it directly is stronger than ever. The urge to withdraw into anonymity and invisibility can overpower us. And that, of course, is exactly what our political masters want.

Have a gander at this article, reflect on what it means for the right to keep and bear arms, and ponder: Will that right be undone de facto, by Gestapo tactics of the sort John Filippidis and his family endured? Then have a look at the statistics in this paper, and ponder whether you can master your fears sufficiently to speak out against such tyranny.

[C]ourage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty or mercy which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky. [C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters]

The beauty of courage, the way in which it evokes unconditional admiration from all but the meanest-souled, is the confirmation of the importance of that virtue -- and of the importance of the fear that must be overcome to exhibit it. Courage is the essential component of any realistic hero, for a hero is one who is willing to accept risk, or hardship, or sacrifice, for something larger than his self-interest. We're capable of detecting it even when it's not on immediate display:

"I'd not have guessed, Andrew. I'd not have thought you capable of it. When we met, when I first looked upon your face, I said to myself, 'if ever there's lived a man who knows not the taste of fear or failure, this is he, here he is before me.' " [Me, here]

But there is this: those "meanest-souled," knowing themselves to be the prisoners of their fears, are enraged by both courage and the admiration of courage. The recognition of that virtue in others inherently demeans them. He who has submitted to fear is unable to bear comparison with one who has mastered it. That's why the legions of the Left are relentless in condemning books and movies that portray genuine courage in action for wholesome ends. To him who has surrendered to fear, it is imperative that courage be snuffed out -- that no trace of it remain to garner the admiration of others.

That goes a long way toward explaining the tirades of condemnation toward movies such as Zero Dark Thirty and Lone Survivor, doesn't it?

In the mood I'm in this morning, I could go on this way for thousands of words more, but I'll spare you. Anyway, one more quote, probably the best-known fictional statement about fear, from Frank Herbert's classic Dune:

"Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." [Frank Herbert, Dune]

Truly blessed is he who can do so...but how many can? Is it learnable? Or teachable? Or is it forged solely from impulse and experience?

Food for thought.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Porretto - Fran . . .

I have been a daily reader for over four years.

This, I think (speaking for myself) is the most insightful piece you have ever written. Thank your, dear sir.

Pax tecum - jb