Is everyone afraid? I suppose there’s probably something that scares each one of us. Illness. Failure. Death. I’ve seen people with a look in their eyes that suggests – they have no fear. Is that possible? I remember an article I read years ago which revealed hidden fears in some violent men. The article was by bank robber turned writer John Mcvicar (Roger Daltrey played him in the 1980 movie about his life: Mcvicar). The article revealed a type of ‘hard man’ who may seem fearless but is afraid all the time. In a physical confrontation, such a man would often lash out when there was no need to, because he was too afraid not to attack first.
It’s easy to see how violence can make us afraid. Yet, there are wider and more insidious sources of fear. Like poverty.
I read an article recently about the growth of poverty under the Covid pandemic. It was a useful article, full of statistics. There was however one thing about it which struck me as jarring: the article was sponsored by a charity set up by a billionaire. I suppose some people may argue that it is a good thing that the billionaire sponsored such an article. Yet, I couldn’t help thinking: if that particular billionaire (a guy called Bill Gates) and his billionaire pals no longer had the power to amass vast fortunes, at the expense of the rest of humanity, there would be no need to write articles about poverty. Vast wealth shared could improve the lives of millions of people currently terrorised by not knowing how they will survive from day to day. The ending of such unnecessary suffering is surely a better outcome than sponsoring articles where it is assumed that poverty is inevitable or only caused by a virus.
Fear is at its most toxic when it grips and distorts our thoughts about the world and about what is possible. Yet, we can however refuse to accept that the sources of fear on this planet are inevitable or unchangeable. Poverty, uncertainty, inequality, environmental destruction, wars, and prejudice: all were made by people and can be changed by people. The first step is always to name what it is we are most afraid of. It may have some important title, like the sources of fear listed here. Yet, fear may also appear in our lives as something which seems so personal that we struggle to give it a name.
We may be afraid of not amounting to much. Anyone can have this fear – even the most talented people. In a time like ours, when a pandemic is prowling outside and in our minds; when opportunities to work, to study, or to travel are reduced, an intrusive clock may start ticking inside our hearts. Young people fear that time is running out and they will lose the chance to study with others – in person, and not just over a computer screen. Workers who are laid off fear they will not be re-employed. Many people fear that the lockdown will last so long that jobs and our future may evaporate.
Naming fears is the first step in dealing with them. Next, we need to confront our fears and that is a harder step. It can feel as daunting as climbing into a boxing ring to face an opponent with a fierce reputation. Confronting fear is also difficult because we must make ourselves tackle things we do not even want to think about. Bereavement. Losing a job. Running out of money or food or electricity. In all of these, we must face up to the question: what can I do?
Throughout human history, and long before there was any record of our lives, people have had to struggle to survive and to overcome fear. This has always involved another question: what can we do?
In poverty, everything seems to shrink to a painful and immediate personal crisis. How to get electricity when the meter runs out. How to get a food parcel. How to summon enough courage to pick up a phone to ask for help. How to get off drugs or control problem drinking; how to cope with the huge responsibility of being a single parent or carer. In all these individual confrontations with fear, it is tragically easy to think we are entirely alone; but other people are often there with us, or not far away.
Life has an uncanny ability to throw a huge variety of large fears in our direction. Confronting them may require courage. To come out as gay or trans or bisexual. To vote for a strike over wages or conditions. To join a group fighting to reduce global warming or to save a polluted beach. To learn how to do something when we fear we may be rubbish at it: to learn how to draw or sing or act. To write a book or make a meal or just get up in the morning, when our fear is telling us to hide.
There are plenty of writers and others who can recommend health solutions or political solutions for our fears. Sometimes, I do the same kind of thing, and I will suggest – a tip for boosting mental health, or I may urge support for a fight against injustice. At other times, I hope that a by-product of one of my stories will be – to make it easier to breathe the air of our lives without fear. We also breathe easier whenever we fight fear, or we laugh at it, or we simply observe and celebrate everyday wonders so that we can rest and recover from all the things that make us afraid. Even in the darkest of days, we are about much more than our fears.
There’s a tree in our garden: a big cypress tree I’ve seen a thousand times, but I just noticed something about it today. I had observed before that the tree is shaped like a huge flame; and when the wind begins to blow, only individual branches sway at first, until the wind grows stronger and then the whole tree gently bends in the direction that the wind is blowing, so the tree will not break. I watched it, as the wind died down and then began to blow harder again. And I then noticed that – the branches of the tree, which all curve upwards to form the big dark green flame shape, look like a forest. If you change your focus from looking at the whole tree to looking at the rows and rows of tightly packed branches, they start to look like individual trees, growing together in a forest and swaying together. First, as the wind begins to blow, the trees sway: some by a lot and others just a little. And then the wind blows even stronger, and the wind is howling, and the whole forest – as one thing – leans over in the direction it is blown by the wind. All the trees bend together, so that the forest is not broken.