Saturday, May 29, 2004

Dumb with Fear

Montaigne's essay, "On Fear," is a meditation on the effects fear has on a person. Fear's main effect is to engender "even in the most staid of men a terrifying confusion." Fear is the emotion which "readily ravishes our judgement from its proper seat." It conjures up visions of werewolves and goblins and changes a flock of sheep into armoured knights. Fear can put "wings on our heels" and make us run faster both towards and away from the danger. It can make us run around like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off. And it can give a person strength enough to beat the odds. Armies can win battles when they are out numbered by the enemy and a mother can lift up an overturned car to release her child trapped beneath it in a accident. Fear "sometimes hobbles us and nails our feet to the ground" keeping us from acting at all. As a child I had a recurring nightmare that I was walking home from school when from behind me, Godzilla would appear, heading toward me and my house. I'd try to run both to escape and to warn everyone, but I always found my feet were stuck to the ground. Sometimes I'd be able to run but I wouldn't go anywhere, would find myself running in place with the monster getting closer and closer. I would always wake up from these dreams with my heart pounding and afraid to close my eyes and sleep again. In my waking hours I became scared my dream would come true, afraid that if a terrifying event ever happened I'd become so overwhelmed with fear that I would be unable to act. I no longer have the Godzilla dream, but I am still afraid of being overcome by fear. "It is fear that I am most afraid of," writes Montaigne. A sentiment echoed almost four hundred years later by Franklin Roosevelt in his 1933 inaugural address: "Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." These are thoughts that we should keep in mind today when the government issues vague warnings about terrorist attack plans and we are encouraged to spy on our neighbors, not for fodder for gossip, but because they could be a threat to homeland security.

People with a pressing fear of losing their property or of being driven into exile or enslaved also lose all desire to eat, drink or sleep, whereas those who are actually impoverished, banished or enslaved often enjoy life as much as anyone else. And many people, unable to withstand the stabbing pains of fear, have hanged themselves, drowned themselves or jumped to their deaths, showing us that fear is even more importunate and unbearable than death.
While I don't believe the poor or enslaved lead happy-go-lucky lives, I do think Montaigne has a point. The powerless and disenfranchised don't have as much to lose as those with power and property. It wasn't the nation's poor that jumped out of windows when the stock market crashed in 1929. You cannot live in fear of losing your house or job if you don't have either. Those with much to lose have much to fear whether it be a powerful corporate CEO or a powerful country. But sometimes a change of perspective is needed to discover that the things one fears losing the most are not necessarily the most valuable. Montaigne quotes Virgil's Aeneid:"I stood dumb with fear; my hair stood on end and my voice stuck in my throat." There are so many things in this world to be afraid of both large and small, valid and senseless. Sometimes we can do something about them and sometimes we can't. Fear is a part of life, but it is not life, nor should we be ruled by it. "Fear banishes all wisdom from my heart" (Cicero), and that is no way to live. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Drunkenness"