THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF REASSURANCE
No doubt there is a continuum of some sort that extends from mild concern through anxiety to fear to terror. I’ve only been up the line as far as fear so I only know terror from observation, which suits me just fine, thank you. I may, as a writer, have an appetite for experience but terror comes so close to death that I suspect the people suffering from it are not consciously feeling much of anything -- just an explosion of sense data with no time to integrate it into meaning. Terror is the opposite of meaning and understanding.
At the other end, anxiety and manageable fear might actually come from knowing and understanding entirely too much. The impulse is to try to lessen the fear by finding out more and by confirming which are facts and which are imagination. I leave a little opening to the backyard for the cats -- mostly Squibbie -- to make little moon prowls, an essential part of cat life. Sometimes we are the ones visited. Usually it’s Caspar, the big white bossy cat from across the street who likes to mark my doorstep with stink. But once in a while it’s a much more sly little beast who makes only the smallest sounds -- which, of course, are scarier. Squeak. Clink. Then I get up and close the access for a few nights.
When a mammal is in a total state of terror, there is no way to reassure it short of chemical intervention. A old woman with a brain tumor -- evidently close to the amygdala -- in a local nursing home began to scream irrationally, desperately, uncontrollably. After every other effort, the doctor simply put her on enough morphine to knock her out until she died. Of course, she was not in REAL terror from REAL danger -- she was simply sitting in a wheelchair with familiar people around her. She didn’t know she was dying. If she were in REAL terror (meaning justified by causes outside her brain), knocking her out would have been the wrong thing to do because the usefulness of terror is to cause so much thrashing, noise, and flight that the cause might be evaded somehow -- the tiger leaving. It is the body trying to save itself.
How can lesser forms of fear be addressed?
A calm authority figure. Obama is a naturally cool calm man with enough Indonesian poise and University of Chicago Law School culture in him to support that. Clinton was a naturally warm and buoyant man whose nurturing willingness to share made everyone feel better.
Convincing facts and theories. We all watch the surveys and pundits and fact-checkers in hopes of evidence that worrisome economies or threats of war can be understood and managed.
Unconcerned peers. If everyone around one seems unafraid, going on about business as usual, then we figure we must be worried about something unnecessarily.
Demonstrations. If we are told a rickety bridge is safe, we feel a lot better if someone else crosses it before we do.
But what about when fears are justified? What about memories of previous fears that replay in the mind again and again, sleeping or waking? What about the fears of people who have lived on the edge for many years, scraping through narrow escapes, taking damage that didn’t quite destroy? They are hyper-vigilant, always suspicious, impossible to prevent from interpreting everything in the most threatening way.
The hardest ones are those who protect themselves with rage and scorn, those powerful emotions that draw on enormous energy and that are almost impossible to turn off. Eventually they become self-fulfilling prophesy so that every attempt a do-gooder makes is finally exhausted, turning the attempt away. This can feel positive to the fearful person, as though they have succeeded in controlling the situation, which reinforces the behavior the next time a do-gooder comes around.
Sometimes the rage and scorn is not direct, but takes the form of games, clever manipulations, turns of the table, until confusion becomes an ally in the game. In fact, the whole thing becomes a high stakes game and pretty soon other players of the same sort are attracted. Then the only intervention is a total reframing from outside the adversary, a complete change of circumstances so that the original terms of the struggle for control are changed. That’s what technology has done to so many of our formal relationships: marriage, churches, universities, publishing, galleries. In the end those dependent on rage, scorn, and game-playing are usually not flexible enough to cope.
But maybe the most intractable cases of fear are those that depend upon secrecy. The traditional “insight therapy” in which a helping person tries to empathize with the feelings of the sufferer until they can understand the dynamics and then explain them rationally only makes everything worse, because the more the secret person feels revealed, the more they interpret the exposure as danger. “Knowing” is not always resolving. But knowing has worked for me, so I find it hard to give up. No doubt it is wrong to impose revelations.
The most basic truth we don’t want to know is that we are all in mortal danger from the moment of conception. It is the fact of being born that leads us on to death. In between is what counts unless we are numb and paralyzed. In attempts to reassure us, religion offers the idea that if we are virtuous we will not be harmed or at least if we are punished, we will have brought it on ourselves and deserve what we get. Or that we will be compensated later. Or that there is a talisman that will protect us. Or that if we love God, He will protect us. When these fantasies fall away, we are more fearful than ever.
I’ve played it safe. I’ve mostly stopped wanting anything but to sit here at this keyboard. I’ve built in as much safety as possible with the resources I have. But the larger world still keeps changing. Earthquakes, cutting social security, changing technology, uncertain infrastructure -- they all have impact on my life. But this is good because I’m aware that there must be contingencies. I reconsider and invent backup plans all the time, sometimes on yellow legal pads and sometimes on 3X5 cards so I can play them out on a table like solitaire. But the equivalent of “Pearl Harbor” could happen anytime. I could have a stroke. A bullet could come through the window in the dead of night while I sit here lit only by the computer screen. Fear sells better even than sex. Some people find it very useful.