Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
June 2009 - Volume 09, No. 6
Fear (and its silence)
How do we speak about what’s going on all around us these days? As I listen to the people around me, my clients, my friends, my neighbors - what are they saying? Curiously, they’re saying very little. There’s little language readily available anymore. It’s come to a deep fearful silence - seeking something to hold onto, something that perhaps we’d forgotten in those times of progress and growth. We hunger for something deeper, that we can trust, yet hasn’t made its way into our language yet.
Perhaps it started with the collapse of the World Trade Towers - that mighty cathedral built to the economic gods of world trade. (All western cathedrals have twin towers.) Sometimes I consider it a modern version of the ancient tower of Babel (Genesis 11).
When they fell, we became angry. And we know what to do with anger - strike back. The powers that be arrogated that and led us to war (like it seems we always do). Anger is the first step. It captures our primitive brain, and we all know how to talk about it and what to do with it. Anger has a readily available language
The second step is anxiety. We become more and more uncertain about what is going on, and how it will resolve. Things begin to effect us personally, effecting our ability to support, house and protect ourselves and our families, as well as the security of our economic future. Our trusty ability to fix things becomes more elusive.
The language of anxiety is also more elusive. It’s the language of complaint, easily generating “ain’t it awful” types of conversation. It also can easily regress to anger language. Anxiety is a poor place for complex problem-solving, so it’s easiest to come up with over-simple solutions, especially those which project blame elsewhere. Anger starts the war, anxiety fuels it, but does little to win it.
That which seemed to start with the World Trade Towers, has continued as an underground shock wave across the land, more recently enshrined in the names like Enron, Lehman Brothers, AIG, Bernard Madoff, and currently landing on our Michigan doorstep with the literal “General Motors bankruptcy” and it’s massive local collateral damage. The mighty are falling at an astounding rate - taking down with them many of ourselves and our neighbors.
We are no longer angry, we are no longer anxious, the prevailing emotion now is fear. And the fear I find all around me has no language. That’s why nobody is talking about it. The politicians easily regress to partisanship (or personal scandal). Preachers find their words strangely empty. We’re living in a time of silence. Even our our newspapers are shutting down, and TV news is mostly empty space.
In my clinical practice, a year ago my clients were talking about job anxiety. Now many have had to curtail therapy because of no money. Some can’t even afford minor insurance co-pays. Many no longer have insurance. More recently I’ve noticed frequent last-minute cancellations because “my work called me in.” It seems employers are more demanding, knowing that workers will do anything to keep their jobs. And it’s not that employers are more greedy (some are), but they are under the same gun themselves. Nobody feels it’s safe to complain anymore. So again, the silence. Fear unspoken.
But there is something else. More people are seeking my help out of a desire to work on their marriages, their relationships, their families, themselves - because it’s the only thing that seems to make sense anymore. It may be the only thing left that they can fix or improve, or to keep the soul alive.
The poverty of our language to speak of fear becomes instead a hunger to rediscover relationship. Or as the mythologists would speak, out of the ashes of the old, a new world is being reborn.
Consider that in the World Trade towers, everybody was contained in little boxes, cubicles, square offices. Only when it came crashing down did people find a natural ability to care, to cross boundaries, to reach out and touch. New York City has always had soul, but at 9/11/01, out of that horror and grief, came more soul than most of us could stand. Perhaps that’s why it was so easily co-opted into anger and war.
No photographs of Manhattan seem to remain which include those towers. But we still remember that brief moment when we all cared so deeply - and the world stood with us. That moment then went underground, awaiting the time for its reverberations to spring forth across the land, from within our very soil, bringing with it courage, the consistency of our deep character, heroism, generosity, renewal.
Anger and anxiety have done their work, and now the fear is accomplishing its purpose as well. It quietly leads us back to each other, to the deep soul of who we really are and can be.
Stephen King, one of my favorite people, iconically begins his book “Night Shift - Excursions into Horror” (1993) with the words “Let's talk, you and I. Let's talk about fear.” And yet, what he does by mapping the territory of our deepest fears inevitably leads us to the quiet goodness of otherwise unremarkable men and women. And it’s that goodness that subtly resolves each story’s dilemma. Stephen King likes people; what’s more, he believes in them. That, plus the fact that he’s an excellent story-teller is why I like to read him.
When things come crashing down, we also go down. Anger, anxiety and fear take us down. But in those rediscovered depths we seek something deep, almost forgotten. What is the soul of this land, where do we come from? Who are we really? What is the deep purpose of our life, of our life together?
When things crash down, many get hurt. But because of our own going down, we now can recognize and care again for each other. The world is reborn - and we together within it.
No longer be afraid.
Pay attention! It’s all around us now. It’s working.
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