The Abyss and You: A Brief Anatomy of Fear
Issue #50, June 2000
Fear is immediately recognizable to me as a primary constituent of society and of large-scale interactions between social groups. It is also recognizable as the pink elephant in the corner of every human mind and heart. Does fear spring from within the depths of each to do its work as the evening bloom of all things social? Or instead do we draw it into ourselves from something felt but unarticulated 'out there'? Fear has been described as a response, as an instinct. It has been broken down into constituents and derivatives, like paranoia or terror. It is tempting to employ reductive strategies: all fears relate to fear of death, to the fear one knew as an infant of the absence or loss of one's mother. Another way to essentialize fear is to insist it is a natural phenomena, a biological response to external conditions, quantifiable in various chemical ways and thus revealed in fullness straight from the mouth of our least embarrassing god, science. The presence of the phenomena of fear in law, politics and the staging of wars can at times appear grotesquely obvious -- witness the entire history of the nuclear arms race, for example. But how often do we consider the weight and trajectories of fears as they shape our lives scene by scene?
It's not so easy to recover the source and temper of the feeling of fear itself. This makes sense in the realm of the most banal of fears, because the admission of such fears can call forth a shame of having them at all. In the same vein, it is often possible to 'think around' such pop-psychology fears, allowing oneself to believe that they have less influence than they do; in such cases, to really explore the roots of the phenomena is to give them permanent residency, to empower them. Besides, who wants to voluntarily plumb their own tormented litany of middle-class self-loathing? Best to just chalk it up to 'fear of flying'. A quick review of available evidence assures us that there's a lot to be afraid of. Yet we pick and choose: Who is convinced enough of its probability to truly fear, say, death by falling piano or spontaneous combustion? The moments during which one experiences a Big Fear, like the immediate fear of death, as the sole motivation for action--indeed as the sole reality--come rarely, and they tend to remain isolated in memory as particular experiences rather than as fluid elements in a linear narrative. For this reason, it is most expedient to trace the workings of fear by starting with such an incident.
About three years ago I spent the entirety of a three-hour flight convinced it was up to me to prevent the plane from plummeting down out of the sky and sending all its passengers to a noisy and fiery death. The boarding and takeoff found me only slightly out of sorts; an irritating whining noise near the gate was troubling me. As the plane climbed, I descended. An absolutely devouring sense of certainty and hysteria surged within and around me; my eyes alternately bulged and screwed themselves shut and I was compelled to remain utterly still except for the sweat and tears flying off me. I think I might once have managed to convince the flight attendant that I did not require attention. Somehow I was responsible for the fate of the vehicle and I felt it as a test; we were all going down the second I decided I didn't mind living or dying. The grip of my fingernails, several of which were torn by the end of the trip, indicated how hard I was trying not to want to die. A momentary lapse in my conviction of the wish not to die would prove fatal. I have never felt more intensely, viscerally afraid. There was surely a conversation taking place within my head; I can't now say for sure if it was a conversation between myself and some other, or between myself and myself. I remember a deep sense of having been found out, caught in some sense, and challenged to really choose to make my innermost will a reality. I knew the 'right' answer to the only question on the test; but was it my answer? Apparently by whatever standard not wanting to die can be measured, I was successful because nothing happened to the airplane. I have always enjoyed flying and was fine on another flight two weeks later, as well as on subsequent flights.
What inside or outside of me could have delivered such an ultimatum? It seems that it is no longer possible to think in religious terms and be a part of an informed dialogue; I myself do not really hold a conviction that 'god' had ventured to test me or was trying to communicate with me. But I still frame my thoughts about the experience in terms laden with trial, redemption, betrayal, in terms of good and evil. Fear spans the divides between the banal and the historically grandiose with ease because it can regularly destroy your choice of the rules we've made to hold it all together -- for one, it makes a mockery of carefully laid boundaries of sanity. My episode at 30,000 feet proves this dramatically, as an instance in which I could look at myself (if only afterwards) and not recognize myself, and know that I was raving, lost, not rational, on the other side of a mirrored surface. These episodes punch holes in our experiential continuum; they stand out and make us recognize the power that fear can have over us.
Yet how could such a dramatic episode, which changed my face from the inside out and broke me open, be different from the daily influences of perhaps less dramatic forms of fear on my decision making? When I try to consider these forces and their patterns in my own life, I almost immediately stumble; I reject my own attempts to face myself. In an important sense, my airborne trial was real. I never had had to experience fear so deeply as I did during those moments, nor have I since, but the question remains, is there something within me that might ultimately choose not to live? Is it this within me that secretly pushes my actions, my thoughts, my own trajectories through the world, even though I do live? I come away with a conviction: I will have to continue to choose the same answer with as much fervor as when I was trapped in that airplane. The choice for me is to turn away from the constant presence of despair and to reject it as my operating principle.
So, when I track the central theme of that particular moment of fear, I eventually run up against an accumulated figure of The Fear, something I would not trivialize by giving it a name like Fear of Death or Loss, but a cloudier sense that an ultimate darkness is the only thing there is (my own personal definition of Fear, it comes right up at me and threatens to stay) a fear of being known to myself or to others, a fear of definition; a fear that closer scrutiny by some other, be it God or my lover, will reveal the same ultimate darkness or emptiness reconstituted in miniature within me. This is how a grand scheme of Fear rewrites itself across the back of my eyes. This is the root of doubt and anger and indifference, so much easier to identify in the pages of a newspaper than creeping vine-like around my own heart.
When not confronting the evil within herself, Nora Connor enjoys life immensely. She is currently open to a transformative experience, but preferably one not involving death in any way.