On Being Afraid

admin February 11th, 2011

In Mildred Kalish’s brilliant _Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression_ she writes of the ways that children and adults alike were blindsided by fear.  For children, the fear was that events out of their control terrified and shook the stable anchors of their lives.  For the adults, events were just is incomprehensible, but they were supposed to understand what was going on:

Though we didn’t understand them, we children were seldom protected from the harsh realities of the period, and we certainly sensed that something terrible was happening.  Indelibly stamped in my memory is the scene in my Aunt Hazel and Uncle Earnest’s farm kitchen one wintry March morning when I was perhaps six years old.  There I entered to find all the stalwart adults of my world - Grandma, Grandpa, Mama, my aunt and uncle - still and wordless as statues.  It was clear that they had been crying.  I had never seen adults cry.  I didn’t know they could cry.  I was struck mute with a fear that grabbed me right in the guts.

Though I was given no explanation at the time, in the days that followed I overheard enough to realize that Grandpa’s brother and sister had each lost their farms, all of their machinery and all of their livestock, for reasons that were unfathomable to me.  What can a child know of vast economic forces operating on a global level?  I was stunned and afraid.

Grandma and Grandpa’s lives were changed forever by the plunging economy.  It has taken me a lifetime to realize that the Depression and its consequent tragedies were nearly as incomprehensible to the adults as they were to us children.  Since they could not understand what was happening in the world, how could they explain the situation to us?  Suddenly, unexpectedly, a family of five was now the responsibility of two old people who had thought they were headed into a comfortable, if frugal retirement.  They must have been scared to death.

The observation that in many ways, adults are no better prepared to navigate incomprehensible world changes than children strikes me as important.  We expect children to be carried along by events, doing the best they can in a world that is often incomprehensible.  Adults, however, are expected to know and understand in some measure why their world goes the way it does.  But what we see around us at present is a world where increasingly, the stories we tell ourselves about what is going on have nothing to do with anything that is actually happening, and people are lost in a growing sense of fear and confusion.

Most of Kalish’s story of the Depression is not about fear, and neither are most of the stories that Studs Terkel tells in _Hard Times_ or Jeane Westin tells in _Making Do: How Women Survived the 30s_ - fear lies as an undercurrent to most of them, but for most of the tellers, that time was less about the aching terror that certainly underlay nearly everything but about what you did about it, how you kept on, or didn’t, went forward or didn’t.  It isn’t that what you felt didn’t matter - but what you did mattered more.  Kalish in the end is able to describe her childhood as “quite a romp” and a time when they were poor, but didn’t poor - in a way, that may be the central goal, that our actions transform the meaning of events, even if we cannot control the events, until it simply isn’t *that* awful.

That’s easier said than done, of course.   The people I know who have lost their jobs and failed to find another, those I know who are struggling to get along (and I know many, both through my work and in my family and community) are terrified.  Underneath everything else is a sense that this is *wrong* - that the world is simply not supposed to work this way.  The fear gets buried under explanations, hopes and assumptions - that things are in recovery, a job is coming any day, that things will get better soon under a new policy or new political regime.  Some people are angry.  Others are quietly going on the best they can.  Some become depressed, or galvanized in their determination to go forward, but everyone is shaken in some way - shaken by the knowledge that things that weren’t supposed to happen have happened, that things far away can destroy their dreams.

My own immediate family has so far passed comparatively smoothly (and the very fact that on writing these words,  some secret part of me wants to knock wood or remove the evil eye or some other superstitious reaction that I don’t actually believe in should tell you something about how secure I feel about this ;-) ) through the initial stages of our economic crisis.  I have the advantage of being comparatively well educated, and alert to what is going on in the world. I also, however, truly, in my gut, grasp the sense that things are frighteningly out of my control.  That I never really had control of a life managed at a distance by large institutions and regulations is not the point - I could maintain, as most of us did, the illusion.

One of the central questions facing us, then, is what we do with our collective fear.  What will we do with our fear as it becomes more and more obvious that our lives are never going back to what they once were - or we thought they were?  Do we turn on each other?  Do we blame some group or nation whether inside or outside?  Do we quietly go on as best we can, supporting one another?  To what do we attribute our fear?

Fear is a powerful and important motivator.  I sometimes encounter people who argue that we should not use fear to move others, that it is too dangerous a tool to use.  I disagree very strongly about this, and indeed, I think almost no campaign for major change has ever succeeded without both carrot and stick, without fear and positive solutions mixed together.  That is why effective anti-smoking campaigns relied heavily on pictures of diseased lungs and dying 30 year olds with cancer - along with pictures of the new healthier you and the adorable grandkids to do it for.  That is why WWII posters needed both the heavy handed children-in-gas masks, “do this or your kids might die in a war” and Norman Rockwell’s postulation of the unified family meal that could happen when the boys come home.

Whether we like it or not, our fear is real and present, and it will be used.  I think this may be the most critical point to make - that someone will use our fear, will take it and house it in explanations.  They may be true ones, or not, part of the truth or none of it, but it will happen, because our fear is too powerful to be fully quelled.  We need a story to explain it.

My own feeling is that the best possible hope for a response in which we do not respond to the upswelling of our buried fears by turning on one another is to tell the story now, to tell it honestly, and to use people’s fear as well and honestly as we can.  To drive them forward with the picture both of what can be (and by this I do not mean the lies about a better world, but the honesty that some good and valuable things can be had in a more difficult one) and also to use the push of fear to move us forward.

I wrote this years ago in an essay I called “Scared? Duh!” and reprinted in part in _Depletion and Abundance_ and I think it is not less true now.  Just as Kalish’s story is in part about how the children and the adults were in some ways caught up in the same terrifying boat, my own sense of what is possible in the face of fear derives from my sense of what is possible in the face of other circumstances.  I once told someone that I belong strongly to the “get a grip” school of psychology.  This does not mean I diminish real psychological difficulty or that I always have a grip, but I do think that the stories Kalish tells of a family that managed its fear through hard work, commitment and unity are in part the stories we can tell of how to get through our own fears.

When you become a parent, if you are going to be any good at it, a certain amount of selflessness and self-sacrifice is mandatory.   You do not, however,  as some people seem to think, immediately become the sort of person who enjoys self-sacrifice and wants to be selfless. The ugly truth is that you are still the same greedy, lazy, selfish person you were before (ok, maybe you aren’t, but I am).

If you were the sort of person who would rather read a novel on the couch than answer the question “what does this spell” 78 times in a row, nothing about parenthood, or even love for your kids will transform you magically into the kind of person who finds having your work interrupted every 2 minutes delightful. I know the world is full of better people than me, but the truth is that a lot of us are still the same ordinarily rotten people we were before we had kids. We just don’t have the option of indulging our rottenness.

That is, parenthood, for parents who really want to do it right, requires not that you be a good person or that your better nature predominate, but that you suck it up and do the unselfish thing anyway, even when it sucks, even when you don’t want to, even when it is damned hard. Some people really are good, unselfish people - and that’s great - I envy them. But it actually doesn’t matter very much whether you are one of them or not, if you care about your kids. You have to go around pretending to be unselfish most of the time in the parent business.

The same is true about our present situation. This is scary stuff. There’s nothing crazy or unreasonable about being scared by what we’re facing. We’ve got bad news, and it is *appropriate* to feel bad about it. There’s no reason we have to be fearless here - frankly, the only way I can imagine being fearless is to be stupid. But we do have to be brave - that is, we don’t have to feel brave,  like the Mom who doesn’t really want to get up for the two am feeding, we have act the right way, to pretend as hard as we can that we have, as the song says, the nerve. And the amazing thing about pretending hard is that sometimes - not always, but just sometimes, you become, as Kurt Vonnegut put it, “what you pretend to be.”  Or close enough to pass.

Which brings me back to fear, and the only antidote to fear I know - good work. I learned in pregnancy, facing labor (all of my labors were very, very, very long) to simply screw up my nerve, accept that the only way out is through, and to go forward into the pain.  We’re in the same situation now - the way out of this current crisis is through it.  Our only choice is to go forward from where we are, with what we have and who we are. It isn’t required of any of us that we not be afraid, or that we don’t spend a lot of time grumpily wishing that someone else would do the work and leave us alone with our book.  But it is required that while we curse fate, previous generations, darkness,  the current administration, G-d and the Federal Reserve, we get to work.

What work? Tikkun Olam, if you are a Jew, or even if you find the metaphor compelling - tikkun olam means “the repair of the world.” In my faith, that is why we are here - to fix what is broken, repair what is damaged, to improve what can be improved. As the saying goes, it is not required of us that we complete the work, but it is not permitted for us not to try.  Or choose your own variation from the faith or ethical principles that compel you most - honestly, I’m not sure it matters.

Now I do not come from one of those religous faiths where you put aside the lesser emotions like fear and selfishness - in fact, as far as I can tell, the right to whine is a sacrament in Judaism. So I’d hardly be the person to tell anyone “don’t be afraid.” Instead, I suggest we all be afraid - that isn’t pathological, it is appopriate and reasonable. Nor do I suggest any of us fail to whine about it as much as possible - that, after all, is what the internet is for, collective whinging. We might as well take advantage of the technology while we’ve got it.

But let us whine while we hammer, moan while we cook, sigh in outrage while we write and march and yell and build and fight our fear with good work and the pretense that maybe we’ll become better people while we’re pretending that we already are. There’s too damned much to do to do it any other way.

13 Responses to “On Being Afraid”

  1. JRB says:

    This was one of the most compelling passages in -Depletion & Abundance- for me. Thank you for writing it.

  2. NicoleC says:

    May I also suggest for the reading list Burl Gillum’s “Life of a Farm Boy in the Great Depression.” Gillum was a child at the time and his West Virginia family was fairly secure, but there is much to be gleaned from the first half of the book about growing and preserving food and succeeding in a barter economy.

  3. NM says:

    Thank you for this. Beautifully said and compelling.
    Especially the part about being allowed to whine about it all. ; }
    We’ve been looking for land for more than a year, and not finding the right place, and I realized along the way that I was driven by sheer terror. This was hard for my husband to understand, since he doesn’t feel the same doubts I do about the economy. It didn’t begin to ease until he agreed that, while looking, we should make substantial changes to our suburban lot, to maximize our ability to grow food — and, not incidentally, practice that craft. It’s remarkable how calming it has been, to be able to think, “Ok, if we end up having to stay here, at least we will have this gardening space, these fruit trees and bushes, this greenhouse …”

  4. Alice Y. says:

    Yes! Beautifully written.

    I am one who tries hard to “put my fear to work”. When I find myself feeling my fear about food or the future or anything, I try to get up and do a little something about it. Wash some plant pots. Check over the stored veggies we have left. Plan a nice supper from scratch. Write the next email moving the community Food Project forward. Sow a few veg seeds into a seed tray, this week. Go and pull a weed or two. If I’m not near enough home to do that stuff, get a notebook out and think on paper about it. Which plants can I raise more than we need, to give away or plant out in unfenced derelict ground? What could I do when I get in? Action is what helps me with my fears at the moment. I can’t control much of what is happening, but I can do something toward there being spinach or cabbage or herbs to eat in the summer.

  5. dixiebelle says:

    Oh, that is fantastic. I must read your book now! I want to know more…

  6. Emily says:

    “When you pray, move your feet.”

  7. et says:

    You write: Underneath everything else is a sense that this is “this is *wrong* – that the world is simply not supposed to work this way.”

    There’s a word for this sense - entitlement.

    Look at how many people live and die and you will see that unemployment, inability to make long term plans, illness and lack of opportunity are still the norm.

    Welcome to the future America, and get used to it.

  8. Margaret in Wales says:

    I bought and read Depletion and Abundance for myself for Christmas and read out to my husband the section including “the right to whine is a sacrament in Judaism”. As a theologically literate man he heard it as “the right to wine is a sacrament in Judaism”. I’m sure you have a post about that sort of mistake for those of us who realise we are living in bewildering times.

  9. Margaret in Wales says:

    And he agreed about the right to wine!

  10. madison says:

    “Underneath everything else is a sense that this is *wrong* – that the world is simply not supposed to work this way.”

    Yes! As a single unemployed mom of a special needs kid whose unemployment ran out last month and who spend every last dime on a car that turned out to be a lemon instead of being able to drive us to a kind friend’s house… I’m terrified. After you’ve given it everything you have and it’s not enough… what then?

  11. Raye says:

    Thanks, coach. This was a timely reminder. Okay, on to duck duty.

  12. Brad K. says:

    @ et,

    There’s a word for this sense – entitlement.

    I think that thinking “this is wrong” is an analytical step. Waiting for someone to *fix* it is a sense of entitlement.

    What you do once you detect a problem - that is, you are presented with an opportunity (as presented in the film “Evan Almighty” by Morgan Freeman)? What you do with that opportunity is a choice. You can grow into the opportunity, you can turn your back. Congress brought up the issue of ‘local food security’ last year - we can look at that and say, “Hmm. That isn’t just about Africa, which is what Congress was concerned about. The trucks to Wal-Mart run on fuel, too. That could get expensive, or scarce. The government could regulate trucking off the road, or the trucking companies might go broke. And that doesn’t mention the ships on the high seas, bringing food from other continents and from across the equator - with always the potential for bankruptcy, hostile military action, piracy, and just not being able to afford the food if it gets to my store. Local food - and other goods - security applies right here to me.” Then - do you get active in adapting regulations to favor local producers? Do you help your community plan to increase backyard production - meat, gardens, crafts and services? Do you state, “I voted in the last election. I did my part - now let the lazy bureaucrats take care of this mess they made.” Do you talk to your grandparents and other elders, trying to rediscover the values, techniques, and mindsets that survived the depressions of the past?

    Opportunities. They don’t all have to be safe and secure and obvious.

  13. admin says:

    Brad, that’s a really good point - I don’t think it is just entitlement to be shocked when the world changes. Sure, any sense of security, or presumption that things will go on as they were is on some level entitlement, but that’s pretty normal human thought, right? In every time of peace and prosperity in human history, there have been plenty of people who generalized from experience. I agree with Brad - entitlement is the assumption that it is someone else’s job to fix it. Which is not, of course, the same thing as shoving everyone off onto their own two feet to sink or swim.

    Madison, I’m so very sorry - how terrifying for you. I wish I had better answers. Is there anyone who can help you? I don’t know what, if anything, I can do, but if you email me, I’ll see if I can think of anything.


Leave a Reply