Suzanne Plunkett / AP


“It’s about fear. You know! They’re all throbbing with fear. We all are.”


He drank the tea without cleaning the lipstick off the rim.


“Bits of it floating in the air. It’s like dust. You walk about and don’t see it, don’t notice it, but it’s there and it’s all coming down, covering everything. You’re breathing it in. You touch it. You drink it. You eat it. But it’s so fine you don’t notice it. But you’re covered in it. It’s everywhere. What I mean is, we’re afraid. Just stand still for an instant and there it is, this fear, covering our faces and tongues. If we’ve stopped to take account of it, we’d just fall into despair. But we can’t stop. We’ve got to keep going.”


“For what?”


“I don’t know. That’s my problem.”


~Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin


Gulnara Samoilova / AP


Ash began to fall, just a dusting at first. I looked back: a dark cloud hung there, coming toward us as it spread out over the parched earth. “Let’s turn aside,” I said to my mother, “while we can see. Otherwise, if we fall in the road, the crowds behind us may trample us in the darkness.” We had hardly sat down, and it was night — not like a moonless or cloudy one, but a night as black as a windowless room, once the lamp is put out. You could hear the shrieks of women, the cries of children, the shouts of men. Some were calling out for their parents, some for their children, some for a spouse, hoping to recognize them by their voices. This group was bewailing its fate, that one the fate of their loved ones. There were some who, precisely because they feared death, prayed for it. Many were beseeching the gods, but an even greater number were concluding that there were no longer any gods anywhere, and that this was the last night on earth. And naturally there were some who made matters worse by adding false and imaginary terrors to real dangers. ~Pliny the YoungerEpistulae 6.20.13-15


Jean-Louis Blondeau / Polaris


To live in fear of what’s about to happen is for many people today—owing to our current political situation—a reality. But to live in fear, period, is a horror, a torture. You have forgotten fear was the culprit, and you have been obliterated, replaced by a shameful black hole, which breathes — or not — in your stead. ~Philippe Petit


Think of the brain as a predictive organ. It is continually using its store of embodied concepts to predict upcoming sensory inputs from the body and the world, and, in doing so, it categorizes them and creates meaningful experiences that we call situated conceptualizations… All emotional episodes are constructed as perceptions — they are the result of the way that the brain makes meaning of incoming sensory inputs from the body and the world. ~Lisa Feldman Barrett 



Is fear something that happens to us or through us? Is it a vast cloud of dust and ash coating our lungs and skin? Or is it a story we tell ourselves about ourselves?


My mother suffers from an odd condition known as Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS). Affecting people who have lost all or some of their vision, CBS is the experience of vivid, recurring, often complex visual hallucinations, ranging from simple geometric patterns to images of animals, people, and even entire scenes. Here is a woman in her nineties, describing her hallucinations to the late Oliver Sacks:

“People in Eastern dress!” she exclaimed. “In drapes, walking up and down stairs … a man who turns towards me and smiles, but he has huge teeth on one side of his mouth. Animals, too. I see this scene with a white building, and it is snowing—a soft snow, it is swirling. I see this horse (not a pretty horse, a drudgery horse) with a harness, dragging snow away … but it keeps switching. … I see a lot of children; they’re walking up and down stairs. They wear bright colors— rose, blue—like Eastern dress.”

My mother sometimes sees faces, but not the beloved faces of anyone she knows. Instead, they are often the evil-looking faces of different animals, leering at her. Other CBS sufferers have reported hallucinations of grotesque faces and menacing people. Here’s what a different informant told Sacks:

[S]he saw five or six tall men standing around her bed, silent and motionless. They were always dressed in dark brown suits and wore dark hats that shadowed their faces. She could not “see” their eyes, but she felt they were gazing at her — enigmatically, solemnly. She felt that her bed had become a deathbed and that these ominous figures were harbingers of her own death. They seemed overwhelmingly real to her, and although she knew that if she stretched out a hand it would pass right through them, she could not bring herself to do this.

“Although she knew that if she stretched out a hand it would pass right through them, she could not bring herself to do this.” Indeed, Sacks notes elsewhere that “[o]ne of the defining characteristics of Charles Bonnet hallucinations is the preservation of insight, the realization that a hallucination is not real.” In this woman’s case, however, for whatever reason, she chose to straddle the line between investing her distressing hallucination with meaning and rejecting it as meaningless. She neither descended into psychosis nor laughed in the solemn faces of those silent men at her bedside.


Why? Why not?


What’s at stake for us when we are clutching our fears to our chests, refusing to let them go? Why do we keep telling ourselves stories in which we are afraid — not angry, bemused, sad, curious, sanguine, or provoked, but afraid? Or because we are connoisseurs of fear, choose any one of these related emotions: anxiety, worry, solicitude, concern, misgiving, qualm, disquiet, uneasiness, wariness, nervousness, edginess, jitteriness, apprehension, trepidation, scare, alarm, fright, dread, agitation, anguish, panic, terror, horror, sensitivity, feeling pent up, being troubled, being unnerved, defensiveness, consternation, perturbation, disturbance, distress, feeling upset, being distraught, being aghast, feeling threatened (Marks, Fears, Phobias, and Rituals: Panic, Anxiety and Their Disorders, 1987).


Honesty, I don’t know.


But I don’t think Marilynne Robinson is wrong in saying that America is full of fear. I don’t think Lewis Lapham is wrong either:

The war on terror brought up to combat strength the nation’s ample reserves of xenophobic paranoia, the American people told to live in fear—suspect your neighbor and watch the sky; buy duct tape, avoid the Washington Monument, hide the children. Given enough time and trouble over the last sixteen years, their collective fear and loathing collected into the cesspool from which Donald J. Trump emerged, in January of 2017, to become the president of the United States.

Nor do I doubt that what psychologists call Terror Management Theory has a certain truth to it, viz., that we human beings are confronted with “potentially overwhelming dread engendered by the realization that death is inevitable, that it can occur for reasons that can never be anticipated or controlled, and that humans are corporeal creatures,” and to keep that dread at bay we “ingeniously, but quite unconsciously, solved this existential dilemma by developing cultural worldviews: humanly constructed beliefs about reality shared by individuals in a group that serve to ‘manage’ the potentially paralyzing terror resulting from the awareness of death.”


But none of that explains why we persist in being unhappy, when it is within our power to be less unhappy.


I will say that I think of a line in Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer (1961). It goes like this: “The malaise has settled like a fallout and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall.” Put another way, there’s a sense in which a person never feels more “alive” than when he or she is experiencing either exquisite pleasure or exquisite pain. To the extent that fear — or what Lapham calls neurotic fear — is the looming shadow of exquisite pain, do we clutch fear to our chests because it makes us feel more alive? Do we fear that without our fears, we would not exist?


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