I steer my bark with hope in the head, leaving fear astern. My hopes indeed sometimes fail, but not oftener than the forebodings of the gloomy.
- Thomas Jefferson
Fear is not the natural state of civilized people.
- Aung San Suu Kyi
When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest.
- Henry David Thoreau
A State of Fear
The second half of the 20th century certainly saw plenty of economic losers among those of us living in the United States of America, but I think it’s safe to say that I’m speaking for a majority of the American population, when I point out that our recent history has included most of us having enough food to eat, enough water to drink, and plenty of clothing to wear. Most of us have some sort of roof over our heads and a car to drive about town. We have access to medical care and some sort of a free education. But beyond just meeting our most basic needs, many American Baby Boomers and the generations of their children who’ve followed, have been able to fill their closets with expensive clothes, their living rooms with flat screen televisions and their stomachs with a seemingly endless supply of cheap, processed food product. The post World War II era in
Our national savings rate is just one example of how strongly we are attached to our habits of personal consumption. The savings rate for the average Americans as a percentage of disposable income dipped into the negative numbers in the second half of 2005 and has stayed there ever since. It seems as if these days, we Americans are willing to go into debit by borrowing money on our credit cards or against the equity of our housing bubble homes in order to maintain our non-negotiable way of life. Why is it that even when it appears obvious that a more practical approach would involve reducing our levels of consumption, most Americans are seeking such shortsighted means to address the material wants they have come to think of as needs? As a society we have come to associate things with happiness, consumption with contentment and we are deeply afraid of what living with less might mean. In the face of resource depletion, energy descent and global climate change, why don’t we just make do with less? Because we’re afraid of change, afraid of the unknown and afraid, if only subconsciously, of learning that maybe having bigger, better and newer might not really deliver the happiness the advertising industry promised. Yes at the center of our fears is the suggestion that this might all have been a big lie and that we have been slow to recognize the costs of our actions in terms of real happiness and the bankrupting of biodiversity on this planet; to say nothing of our insane levels of personal financial debt. These days we’re afraid of many things, chief among them that we might have destroyed our children’s future for nothing. There is an awful lot of fear going around.
Of course there are other, more palpable fears out in our society at present; fears manufactured by those who profit from this culture of consumption. There are those who are not interested in the health and human happiness of the people in this country but rather they are infected with the fear of change in a way that is so absolute as to turn them against all other human beings and in fact against all other species of our planet in favor of gathering personal wealth in the form of material goods. Some speak of this sort of sickness as greed. Others call it gluttony but at the heart of this avarice is fear. And as it will do, this fear has caused those who have it to spread it out among the rest of us. Fear of change has been injected into our American dream to paint its revision as a nightmare. Yes, this spreading of fear has been on purpose. And it is getting worse.
As a nation we have allowed the
In 2003, the
More than 3,500
But still I argue that this fear of terror, this terrorism on the part of our leaders, who pass out anxiety on the nightly newz, is possible only because we are in our hearts afraid of living in a manner different from the affluence most of us have come to know. We associate having fewer toys with a less satisfying life. We relate physical labor to a painful existence. We correlate small, simple or uncomplicated ideas with a life lived of less enjoyment. We are a product of our product culture, and we are deathly afraid of changing it.
Most of us have known a life lived largely with the creature comforts of a relatively high level of material wealth and are therefore easily frightened by any idea of going without it. This fear takes many forms as it calls attention to our culture as a way of life based on material wealth, not on human connections to each other and our natural world. But there are other ways to live. It is possible to imagine a world mostly free from fear. The problem is casting off the prevailing anxiety of our present way of life. In order to glimpse a fearless existence we need the ability to temporarily escape to a place where we are free to envision it.
I recently spent 4 days living completely outside in a farm field in central
Two weeks home from the music festival one of my friends, who had just been for the first time, asked if I ever experienced an emotional hangover upon return from this annual event. I told him that yes, after a few weeks of pleasurable nostalgia concerning the trip, my return to the work-a-day world of our crazy culture creates in me a longing to return to that farm field, that place where I walk, I sing, I feel and I enjoi the people and the world around me; not through a film of fear but through direct experience: joy, pain, laughter and ache; all in a good days fun. The experience revives my heart and refreshes my soul and one year from now I hope to return to that place where I know others set aside fear and rejoice in a few days lived without it. In the meantime I’ll try to remember what it is that tugs at my spirit while I am away working hard (too hard I think sometimes) to realize this dream as a new reality. The answers are all so simple that even I forget them sometimes so it helps to go and listen and be reminded and be thankful. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity again. Certainly long term life can’t continue on in a field without making plans to meet our most basic needs and wants. But this trip always brings to my mind the idea that happiness is not wrapped up in all that we so desperately cling to and fear for losing in terms of all our stuff.
Of course those of us who are aware of the fact that this fabulous wealth of oil will be in short supply are guilty of cultivating fear. Those who understand the hard facts that surround the warming of our planet also used fear as an alarm that panics people into denial or worse, brazen opposition. Too little top soil. Not enough fresh water. Extinction. Die-off. Famine. Floods. Disease. Death. The sky really is falling and we are not afraid to shout it out in our own fright and to frighten others. But I’m not so sure that such behavior helps, especially if we don’t offer a vision of how we all might be better off if we change our destructive lifestyles. Fear is after all, the very same behavior that lead to all our problems in the first place. Had we been content to wander this Earth and take what was offered we might have been happy and free from fear even still today. But our ancestors stopped to try and force their will upon the planet. Not satisfied with what was available, our species entered off on this journey of sickness in separation from nature, of which fear and its anxiety are a symptom. It is too late to go back of course. The idea that we can again roam the Earth free from long term fear is untrue. There are too many of us now and we’ve forgotten how to do it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t examine the mistakes of our recent past. It doesn’t mean that we can’t see fear for what it is, a debilitating emotion concerning anything but the most fight or flight response. FDR was right, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” To think otherwise is to burden ourselves with the idea that we can alter the unalterable or that we can not do that which can be done. It clouds our vision and makes it hard to understand the true state of our predicament - this materialistic way of life is killing us; both as individuals and as a nation.
The truth is that we’re afraid of losing the very stuff that is making us sick. We cling to our disease as if to let it go or to leave it unprotected is a sin. We tell ourselves, “We mustn’t change the way we live. We mustn’t stop the firefight of its protection. To do so would be to… to…” In truth to do so would be to live again and to turn our society from one so concerned with avoiding death that we are willing to avoid living life. And even though this knowledge and the truly logical behaviors associate with it are easy to understand, practicing such an obvious inspiration is not so easy least you alienate yourself from all the others who are afraid. Those who are afraid want you to be afraid as well. Talking about fearlessness is heresy. Teaching it is a sin. Working against the establishment of fear can also get you in trouble, but having gotten a glimpse of a world without it, I really just don’t have a choice.
So it is with these thoughts that I suggest you plan your own personal vacation from fear. It might involve time spent quietly alone. It might mean switching off the television, tuning out NPR and going offline. The outdoors will help and will make you too far away to be bothered with the fear that spreads across our country. It’s probably a lifelong process to try and heal from its effects and doubtless fear will be plentiful in our nation for generations to come. Genuine catastrophes and fear mongers alike will see to that. Me, I’m doing my best to balance my life and live it with time devoted to cultivating a fearless existence. No one’s perfect. Life’s not fair. And bad things are going to happen to all of us. It’s not about being unprepared or looking at life through rose colored glass but I promise, if you can cultivate a time of your own away from fear, you’ll live a life with more room for joy and just maybe this planet will be a better place because of it.