On Fear


In Mildred Kalish's brilliant memoir, _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 in a crisis. For children, the fear was that events out of their control terrified and shook the stable human anchors of their lives. For the adults, events were just is incomprehensible, but they had the added burden that 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 - and a searching for credible explanations for why the world they were promised no longer exists.

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_, all narratives that ask "how did we manage difficult times?"

Fear instead lies as an undercurrent to most of them. The memories of that time for most tellers were less about the aching terror that certainly underlay nearly everything but about what you did about it, how you kept on, or didn't, how you 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 mostly didn't feel 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. Along with that terror is a sense that because the collective narrative of economic recovery is trumpeted so loudly, that there is something wrong with THEM if they are still in trouble.

Even those who are getting along adequately seem awrae of a sense that this is *wrong* - that the world is simply not supposed to work this way. Whether they blame corporate inequity or liberal taxation or Iran or Israel, the government or (most often) themselves, there is a fundamental awareness of being out of control.

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 almost everyone is shaken by our times 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, through a world that is warming faster than expected, through the very early stages of decline.

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? What will we do with our fear as the planet around us passes points of no return? 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.

Iindeed, 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 of material limits, of our choices and our failures 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 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 of incomprehension, 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 and admire you if you are one of 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. And it is pretending.

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 about your future, 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 only way out of the present and into the future is through. 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 ethical principles that compel you most - honestly, I'm not sure it matters, since nearly every ethical system has the same basic idea.

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.

Rational fear in response to frightening circumstances 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.

In the end, what transformed Kalish's life from one of fear to one that could be called a "romp" was the collective support, the love and strength she and her family derived from one another, the experience of working together to protect what they valued most. That is not an easy thing to do, but it is a necessary one, and the only compelling way I can imagine facing the future.

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A timely piece!
This afternoon at lunch, my wife and I were trying to hash out what a reasonable perspective in these times looks like.
This post quite nicely sums up what I agree is the best perspective.

The future will require people to be fighters.

Here's a link to a song by Corb Lund which seems to suit:

By Lucas Durand (not verified) on 30 Mar 2012 #permalink

It helps to call it what it is: fear. I spend a lot of time just saying I'm being practical, well-prepared, thrifty, etc. Which I am, of course, in addition to incredibly intelligent and farsighted and all-knowing. :) Thanks for reminding me that yup, this is scary, so there's no shame in admitting it, I'm afraid.

Thanks Sharon. :)

My problem comes with trying NOT to be afraid in front of the kids. I want them to be aware of what is going on in the world and to know why we might be preparing, but I don't want them to be afraid of their future. Maybe if they were older.....I'm just not ready to tell them that they can't be cowboys or professional baseball players or that their adult life might be filled with much physical toil because there is not enough oil to go around.
So we raise animals to eat and grow a garden and drink milk from our neighborâs cow and mend our clothes instead of buying more, all in the name of âyou-might-someday-need-to-know-these-skillsâ. I hope we are doing enough to prepare them.

By Elizabeth (not verified) on 30 Mar 2012 #permalink

Thank you. I needed that.
Am glad someone else has similar attitudes.
Am glad my wife was able to read this from someone else than heari8ng only me going on about it.

You should read Crichton's State of Fear which gives chapter and verse on precisely how and why those in charge use false scare stories (primarily eco ones like catastrophic warming, peak oil, LNT, pollution reducing life expetancy to 42 by 1990 but some like terrorism and wars of a more coventional sort).

These fascists, eco and conventional, are deliberately robbing people of their future so that they can keep stealing from us.

By Neil Craig (not verified) on 31 Mar 2012 #permalink

I got one good laugh out of this when you said that the internet is for collective whining. How true! And it is also for collective laughter, and support, and learning, and moving forward.

By Marvin McLarty (not verified) on 31 Mar 2012 #permalink

Elizabeth, I'm working on a "what to tell the kids" post myself - and I agree, it isn't easy and it is tough balancing act.


The basic premise here seems hard to accept.

American farmers during the Depression belonged to either the first of second generation in history, and we to the fifth or sixth, in which it was possible to live at all without constantly being exposed to corpses of various kinds, or living with the constant threat of losing everything. Just read a random sample of Dickens or Dostoevsky.

If these farmers were, indeed, as you suggest paralysed by fear, then that suggests something deeply unhealthy about our current cosseted lives, that comfort fatally enervates us after a scant generation or so. That might be worth an article or two! However, having lived through some pretty bleak times in the 1980's and early 1990's in the UK, I find the idea of paralysing fear to be alien to my own personal experience. Grimness, yes, desperation, yes, but fear, no.

By Ian Kemmish (not verified) on 02 Apr 2012 #permalink

Thanks Sharon, I have been reading your book Depletion and Abundance and have really been savoring it (and taking many notes). Clearly we need to be pragmatic and thoughtful in making our plans for the future. I have four kids and I'm sure they are tired of my "Apocalyptic ramblings". I don't think I'd have too much fear if it weren't for my fear for my children. I just want them to be sensible, skilled and prepared for whatever might come.
Happy Pesach to you and yours. Pam