Thursday, July 05, 2007

a state of fear

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 America can be aptly described as a period of relative easy for those of us in the majority middle class. We’ve devoted our spare time to shopping, lawn care, or just washing our autos, with little thought given to the anomaly that is our point in human history. It is difficult for those of us who have grown up in the relative luxury of this our materialistic, consumer culture to fathom real want. And this is why it is so easy for us to fear and so easy for that fear to be used against us.

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 US government to scare us into accepting a dramatic reduction in our personal freedoms over the past several years. As a response to the terror acts of September 11th 2001, Congress approved the USA Patriot Act, which among other actions allows the federal government to access our tax and medical records, agrees to secret searches without probable cause and even gives the government the ability to track which books we check out of our public libraries. During the months immediately following 911, thousands of men, many of them United States citizens who happened to be Muslims, were detained and held for weeks in secret locations without being charged. Since those events, more than 8,000 Arab immigrants have been interrogated solely because of their religious affiliations. In addition the US government has and probably continues to participate in ‘extraordinary renditions,’ the term used to describe the kidnapping of suspects (formerly innocent until proven guilty) who are then flown to other countries for interrogation. All of this in the shadow of the fact that our government has largely repealed Habeas Corpus, the right of a prisoner to petition the courts against unlawful imprisonment, a fundamental right of Western law dating back to the 14th century. And of course we all know now about the current administration’s program of secret wiretapping which allowed the executive branch access to the phone conversations of American citizens without court authorization. Why would Americans allow such an erosion of civil rights here in the land of the free? It’s simple, as a people we have given in to their fear.

In 2003, the US military invaded the country of Iraq because George W. Bush and his administration told the American people, and the world, that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and that he was an imminent threat to the United States and our allies. In the run up to the war, the Bush administration also constantly suggested a connection between the terror attacks of September 11th and Saddam Hussein. Yes, fear was central to our willingness to support the invasion of a country that had not harmed us. Lost in the terror talk was the fact that we were the ones that armed Saddam in the first place or the fact that the Middle East is sitting on top of the remaining 2/3 of the oil left in a world that has peaked in global petroleum production. The truth behind the decision to go to war was hidden by a heavy dose of fear. We now know there weren’t any weapons of mass destruction and the Bush administration has now publicly denied any connection between Saddam and 911. Lots of scary for nothing, but so much damage has already been done.

More than 3,500 U.S. soldiers have died fighting over this error and hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi have been killed because of the decisions made by our president and yet the authority of the current administration, both morally and legally, has faced relatively scant opposition. Most Americans now say they oppose the war but the vast majority aren’t willing to take to the streets in protest or even talk openly about impeachment. They are afraid of being labeled un-American or worse yet, they are afraid of being punished by those in power. What a sad state of affairs that our government might make such a colossal mistake in terms of human lives lost and money needlessly wasted (the cost of the Iraq war now topping 1 trillion dollars) and yet we as Americans are scared to do anything about it. Or perhaps it’s a combination of fears too great to overcome; afraid of the terrorists, afraid of our own government, maybe even afraid of what will happen to our economy here in consumption USA if the Middle Eastern oil goes to China or India instead of suburban American. 40,000 people die in America each year in automobile accidents yet we are mostly unafraid of cars. Fewer than 2,800 died on September 11, 2001 and yet we have allowed our leaders to twist those events into a national fear so strong that it has replaced reason, prudence and discretion.

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 Tennessee. I was there to attend the bonnaroo music festival and this meant sleeping in a tent, eating under a trap and walking miles a day to get water, to use a portable toilet and to listen to phenomenal music under the blaring sun in daytime temperatures of around 95 degrees. And it was awesome. I was with 4 friends and we largely traveled together. We went without most of the comforts of our regular lives, though we had a roof, albeit fabric, and food and water and companionship. We took some tea and we drank some beer. I brushed my teeth with a plastic toothbrush and ate fried mushrooms from a food vendor and was treated to the most spectacular laser light show I have ever seen, so I can’t claim to have lived in anything like the conditions faced by many of those in third world countries. I don’t mean to suggest that my vacation from consumer culture was without some of the advantages of our affluent society. Tickets to the event after all were $200 a piece. But I did go without air conditioning. My group had no television. There wasn’t any way to get around without walking. No couch, no bathtub and no Internet. We shared cell phones and kept our food cold with dry ice. Like I said, not poverty level existence by any means, but my traveling companions and I went without much of what most people think of as necessary in modern American life. And because of that, not in spite of it, we had a blast. The atmosphere was one of kindness with a focus on each other, friends and strangers alike. People gave things away, shared and talked to new people. Obviously festivals are a time of fun but this environment left me free to suppose that our existence is not predetermined as that of a frightened citizenship who work most of their days indoors to collect things and but stuff and consume crap before falling asleep in front of an idiot box. We hear everyone talk about, “What is really important,” during monumental points in our lives. After the death of a loved one, during a graduation ceremony, in the toast of a wedding couple we hear our fellow citizens talk about how people, not things, are that which is most important. And then most of us go back to a way of life that is exactly opposite from that which we hear in such speeches. Think about what life would be like if we could live out this dream. Are we too scared to even imagine? I know that idea frightens those who sell us our substitute.

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.


Anonymous said...

hmmm, I thought your entry was interesting, however i want to ask, what are you afraid of? my response is probably an over simplification but if one chooses to live life in fear because of what is being touted in the media then, well, they choose that. the only way to not live in fear of global warming, peak oil, the death toll in Iraq, the current political administration, terrorism don't read/watch the news. change your behavior. that is the only thing you can do. change the way you live your life. if you want that feeling that you had at the festavil in tennessee then live your life that way. be the change you want to see. i could give a long bleading heart liberal soliloquy just as you just did, but it is a waste of time. take a stance and change your life. Don't be an over consumer, purchase only what you need, purchase a hybrid, or take public trans or two wheel it, compost, live in a smaller space, convert your home to solar and get off the grid. give your extra close away to those who really need it, purchase environmentally safe cleaning products, recycle, minimize or eliminate electronic toys, get the idea. there are actions you can take to minimize your own impact. just don't give lip service to what is going on in our society, do something about it, be a role model for your friends and family if you aren't already.

nulinegvgv said...

Thank you for your comment. I must admit this post was almost entirely for me. That is, I wrote this because I needed to get these ideas out of my head. The contrast is so stark each year when I visit the festival I described- the difference in the way people behave in the makeshift society that springs up in that farm field always sends me home scratching my head in wonder about the way we live our lives in American society today. I wrote what I did knowing that I would be incapable of transferring the feel of that festival. Perhaps someone else could convey its magic with written words, but mostly I think you would just have to go and feel for yourself. When I get home, not walking everywhere feels weird.

My family and I participate in many of the activities you mentioned. In fact I am kind of a compost nut. I’ve been known to pick up a half eaten apple off of the sidewalk and take it home to feed to our semi-urban chickens. And our household has been TV free for more than two years now. Truth be told, that’s the sort of stuff most people like reading about. Writing about growing more of our own food or making compost tea always gets attention. In fact the most widely read piece I’ve ever written was a 15 line description of how I grow my own Luffa shower sponges- tens of thousands of hits on the Internet in less than a week. I know people aren't especially interested in my rants about life. But I find it feels good to get them out. Also, least I make myself out to be properly prepared for the effects of peak oil and climate change, I am still unprepared and learning. But I am making change and sometimes I write about that too.

I know that I alone have the power to resist the fear prevalent in our society and to be the change in my own life. I am doing that in response to my understanding of how the world really works, and I write about it so that I might help others to make similar changes if they so desire. Every so often however, I still use this cyberspace as I did originally, as a place to come and air out my own thoughts so that they might make more sense to me.

To answer your question, I can think of two fears I struggle with. The first is dying without a chance to see our country really recognize the wonderful opportunity of community; an opportunity I think we are largely missing or at least have forgotten about. I am also afraid of dying alone. In retrospect, maybe those two are actually one and the same fear.

Anonymous said...

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