Literally trillions of gallons of ink have been spilled over the last two millennia, attempting to define, describe, defuse, deflect, absorb, and even deny human fear. All thinking people, from all backgrounds, professions, religions and cultures have thought deeply and written about fear.
We all have residual resonances of words like:
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of holiness" (Psalm 111:10)
"Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." (FDR, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933)
Nevertheless, fear is a creature that marches through our darkest nights, our worst imaginings, our deepest and most profound confessions, and our most horrible outcomes. This is true in our individual personal lives; it is also true in our family lives, the lives of our schools, colleges, universities, corporations and, most importantly, our churches and the many teachings propagated by those agencies, whether through overt "education principles" or the propaganda of the private enterprise system. We all know young children who will not sit in a family room watching television with the room's door closed, so 'frightened' are they of some intrusion, however they may imagine such an event. We have all been strongly warned about the dangers of falling, hot stoves, fire, speeding autos as we begin to cross town and city streets. We have also been warned, both openly and inferentially, about the fear of failure on our first school "tests", and later on our driving test, our graduation examinations, our failure to graduate from university, our failure to attract a partner, our failure to produce "grandchildren", our failure to "live up to our potential" through the acquisition of employment commensurate with our ability, training and interest. It is no surprise, and qualifies almost as truism, that fear is deeply embedded in our psyches, and reinforced by the expression of fear of some supreme being, some afterlife of some kind of 'heaven' or 'hell'.
When schools incarnate their fears, they are waging a public relations campaign to gain public acceptance and confidence in the job their are doing, through any and all benchmarks that seem relevant: graduation rates, scholarship winners, athletic trophies. In an overt demonstration of change in my first few months as a senior elementary school vice-principal, I documented the drop in recidivism among the 400 student population, as compared with the previous year, as a sign that my approach to the issue was working, an important piece of evidence that I delivered to the local service club who had invited me to speak to them about contemporary education. There is a very fine line separating the motive and the task of "generating public confidence" and "avoiding public condemnation," both on the part of the school organization, and on the part of those individuals responsible for its leadership. Public confidence is essential to retain credibility for the school board, its elected officials and the school administration. Nothing more quickly and more seriously undermines the work of educating young boys and girls, especially in small towns and villages, than a gestalt perception widely circulated in the coffee shops and restaurants, at the church socials and in the service clubs that "things are out of control in that school".
Similarly, in corporation board rooms, nothing is more toxic, frightening and thereby paralyzing, than confirmation of, for example, the recent spate of recalls (over 3 million) by General Motors. Heads will roll, recriminations will erupt and the fallout will cloud the corporate culture for decades. In universities, as we have witnessed, public reputations have to exclude stories of deaths of students by overdosing on alcohol and/or drugs, stories of professors or officials who sexually abuse students, or of stories of treasury officials found with their hands in the till.
And yet these are "little" dramas compared with the perception of the ultimate "judgement" that haunts the dogma, theory and praxis of ministry in the church, given that however God is portrayed, the Supreme Being has strings to pull over the eternal destiny of people, so the story is presented.
First, all humans are going to die, and in the west, most humans live in a culture in which death is the elephant in the room, avoided, rejected, denied and never talked about, given its finality, non-negotiability, and potential to divide, and even destroy human relationships even among the most loving.
I have attended funerals during which the clergy posited the theology that death was evil, a contradiction to the "theology" of the sanctity of live that inhabits many Christian teachings. How that clergy and others who hold a similar view square the notion of death as being outside 'natural law' given its universality, ubiquity and predictability through all living organisms on the planet seems somewhat incomprehensible.
Nevertheless, there is a western cultural, Christian conventional nugget that connects what we do not understand and fear with evil. In our dramatic presentations we use specific eye posturing, dark make-up and a sinister face to portray the villain, that character in the drama whose motives and actions we tend to follow with intense interest, almost as much if not more interest than we demonstrate in the "good" character whom we suspect will overcome the trickery and chicanery of the evil character, unless the drama is defined as a tragedy. Waging open and defiant conflict with the forces of evil, and especially defeating those forces, or at least putting them into an inactive state, has been for centuries defined the hero's character and role in most dramas. The Shakespearean tragedy, Othello, for example, includes one of the most sinister characters in English literature, Iago, whose motive of revenge following his rejection for a promotion from his superior, Othello, energizes the narrative development of the play. Turning the "good" of the most pure characters, including Desdemona and Othello, into their own undoing, is central to Iago's perverse tactics. Generating suspicion among the least suspecting leads to their personal tragic unravelling and eventual death.
In this tragedy, the evil motive and character (revenge and Iago) combine to create a heinous force of evil, seemingly untainted by Iago's fear of being found out, so compulsive is his need for vengeance.
Nevertheless, would it not be reasonable to speculate that it was Iago's deep-seated fear of not being successful, his own need for 'status and power' and the his fear of not acquiring those percs that drives his actions and his words.
Fear of not being "successful" however that word may be defined, fear of failure, fear of being "no good" both in moral and in religious terms, fear of not providing, fear of being rejected, fear of not being accepted, fear of derisive and even bigoted bullying based on traits as primitive as body shape and size, intellectual capacity, family history and reputation, parenting competence through the lives of one's children, economic status, religious affiliation, acceptance by a deity into some form of an afterlife....these are just a few of the many incarnations of the kinds of fear that stampede the psyches of unsuspecting young boys and girls from a very early age. These fears, naturally, take on a mask of varying design, colour and intensity, depending on the depth of the fear, the conventional language in the family, the access to paths leading to accomplishment and overt success, in the public perception, that will keep these "voices" quiet until they find reason to re-emerge, upon the most recent reversal.
How individuals perceive and address their own fears, including their projection of those fears onto others, (that unconscious and perverse habit that finds voice, look and "power" over others, while holding in abeyance the 'projector's own vulnerability) will have a profound influence on the relative impact of fear in each family, in each classroom, and in the larger world.
Neophytes, in all spheres, generally tend to overcompensate for their lack of "history" through exaggerated efforts that can and often do offend their colleagues, especially those whose footprints are overturned in the overcompensation. Two fears, that of the neophyte's not being accepted, and that of his predecessors' being forgotten and denigrated, hook in a dance of neurosis that too often occurs without either party ever giving voice in public to the dynamic. A nation, like the United States, once a neophyte on the North American continent, needed to prove its worth as a new, different and appealing nation, especially when compared with the Monarchy and State Church in England from which the republicans were escaping. Perhaps the bravado of those 'fathers of the constitution' pushed their words into the "all men are created equal and given inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" phrasing, based on the "vote" expanding the power of the citizen (still considerably restricted, as history would prove) in a zealous pursuit of unique and special nationhood, that continues to haunt the republic nearly three hundred years later.
More recently, fear of Russia, Communism, not being number ONE, has generated the largest and most deeply funded military establishment, the first landing on the moon, the archetype of the international police force and the over-reach into Iraq and Afghanistan, doubling down on the vengeance following the attack on 9/11 and the consequential draining of the federal budget, now and for decades, paying for both the conflicts and their aftermath in both lost diplomatic influence on the world stage and veteran rehabilitation costs.
Fear of being attacked, a vestige to some degree, of the revolutionary gestation of the nation, and then the divide over the moral and ethical issue of slavery and the military attempt to settle the differences through killing and maiming 'the other side'...demonstrates a degree of fear on both sides. On the union side, fear of the perpetuation of a social/political/cultural and religious model of owning human beings as if they were "shovels" or cooking pots, or brooms and mops motivated those considered today "liberal" whereas the fear of losing those slaves and the living conditions they made possible, including the deeply held belief of black inferiority in all aspects of human definition brought the union to the brink of an irreparable rupture, while leaving some 600,000 dead in the wake of the conflict.
In the United Sates, with some two-thirds of the economy dependent on consumer spending, and by far the largest amount of the advertising budgets spent to seduce those purchases and purchasers basing its presentation on playing to the fears of those who will make those purchases, including the fear of not having the friends that will come through and with the acquisition of product X, or service Y, the fear of lack of acceptance, or lack of status, or lack of health or power or influence, or good health, or fear of not 'fitting in' (one of the most seductive selling techniques!)...these are all subtly and almost imperceptibly underpinning the messages that saturate the airwaves on television and more recently on the internet. And they are, once again, the messages supporting and sustaining a culture of fear (no matter how ignored, denied, rejected or even championed). And their impact is to render the culture immune to its own participation in its own sabotage.
No culture can successfully champion "being number one" on the back of a belief system that is founded on the fear of failure. These are simply two irreconcilable and mutually exclusive notions.
Any initiative that seeks to reduce or eliminate the power of evil in all cultures must take into account the depth and ubiquity of human, organizational, governmental, ecclesial and even national fear, neurosis. And no conception of a world in which evil is not the dominant force, on the streets of Chicago where shootings kill dozens every weekend, on the streets of Gaza city, Baghdad, Damascus, or in the forests of Nigeria where hundreds of young girls are being held, as hostage for the return of Islamist terrorist prisoners, can even begin to show a glimmer of light on the planet's horizon, unless and until we all, individually and collectively, take responsibility for our personal, familial and organizational participation in a culture that is dependent on the manipulation of fear, as one of the most foundational principles of evil.
We have to acknowledge our appetite for fear and our deployment of fear in our daily pursuit of our lives, in our careers, and in our spiritual lives, acknowledging our fear of our truth's capacity to engulf our consciousness as well as our consciences. We have to examine critically our dependence on fear as an instrument of control in our relationships in our families, our schools and our workplaces. And having looked squarely in our individual mirror, we have to begin to speak courageously about the existence of fear as an intimate component in all of our conflicted situations, domestic, professional and geopolitical...
And the time for this reflection is long past due!