Fear moves in mystifying ways. Although we hardly ever call it by name, it is deeply insinuated in our stories of reality. One such story is captured in Mississippi Burning, a movie about the FBI investigation of the murder of civil rights activists. The scene I have in mind starts with a conversation between two white agents discussing the origins of racial hatred. One, presumably from the North, asks the other, a native Southerner, how all the hatred started. The Southern agent responded with a story. As he put it, there was this “old Negro farmer named Monroe” who managed to get himself a mule to work his small plot of land. He managed to have some success and would buy more land to farm. Other small farmers who were white started teasing the FBI agent’s father, who too was a hard-scrabble farmer. The more successful Monroe’s farm became, the more intense the teasing became: “Now that Monroe is making so much money, he’s going to buy himself another mule.” Not long after, Monroe’s mule mysteriously died. Monroe packed his belongings and headed North. When the Southern FBI agent realized that his father had killed the mule, his father said to him: “Son, if you ain’t better than a n*gger, who are you better than?” In a pique of (self) righteous indignation the agent from the North said, “So you think that is an excuse?” To which his partner replied: “No it’s just a story about my daddy.”
What makes this scene unforgettable to me is that is so eerily mundane. The dialogue in no way suggests that there was anything especially monstrous or craven about the agent’s daddy. He seemed simply to be an ordinary man obeying the dictates of a white supremacist culture that both titillated and taunted him. In his story, the agent is describing an ordinary father offering his son a lesson about living life with purpose and dignity. We must ask: how does it happen that dignity is performed through acts of calculated hatred? One answer comes from Reverend David Billings, a man whom I consider to be a great teacher and ally in anti-racism. Dave, an United Methodist minister and a leader in the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, confirmed that there was nothing hyperbolic about this dialogue nor about the racial atrocities in 1960’s Mississippi. Because he grew up with intimate knowledge of the Klan in Mississippi, he maintains that race infused every aspect of everyday living. As Billings tells it, even front porch conversations about weather ended in speculations about whether it was “hotter for white folks than for n*ggers.” A sacred duty shaped everyday experience and interpretations of reality: namely, to establish, protect, and defend the rightness of the racial hierarchy.
The fictional agent in the movie about the 1960’s asked a question relevant to us – ordinary citizens in 2018: So how does it start? In what ways might our own pursuits of dignity and purpose violate the dignity and well-being of others? Even if we do not perform acts of violence – and most of don’t – what allows ordinary people like ourselves to countenance acts of violence against other beings? How do we account for the upsurge in calculated acts of bigotry (e.g. murders of trans women, unbridled hate speech, mass deportation), when most of us are repulsed by card-carrying members of the KKK, Atomwaffen, or any group whose raison d’etre is the promulgation of hatred? Most of us ordinary citizens wake up each morning with the goal of behaving decently, not destructively. How is it then that ordinary decency can co-exist with hateful biases that feel necessary to a good and decent life?
While reasonable responses to these questions are necessarily contextualized and multi-layered, the unifying substrate across these multiple manifestations of hatred is fear. I don’t mean the goose-bumpy scared feeling that causes us to cringe during a horror movie or run from a coiled reptile. I mean the fear that causes us to establish our self-worth by asserting our dominance over other beings. I mean the fear that compels us to erect impermeable walls to protect our “entitlements” – to keep those beings out of our comfort spaces. (Ah, much as I dislike admitting it, there is a perverse truth lurking underneath the lies that are tweeted out of the White House: whoever has the power to build the wall has the power to impose the burden of “cost” onto the people who are walled out.) Here’s where the trance begins: while we are busy building our walls and asserting our rightful place in the human hierarchy, we probably don’t feel fear at all. We feel powerful, we feel strong, we feel justified.
The Ontological Illusion of Aloneness
A quote famously attributed to Einstein states that our separation from each other is an optical illusion. However much the Western world might praise his genius, our post-Enlightenment cultures consider individualism and autonomy to be the hallmarks of maturity and success. Given that we trace our national origin to “independence,” it is no surprise that our American culture nearly sacralizes those notions. Self-sufficiency, the “self-made ” man, rugged individualism – they are all fantasies of course, with the most ridiculous being “you’re born alone, and you die alone.” (We can’t prove much about the end of life, but who in the world was ever born alone?) And are we at all surprised that Herbert Hoover was the president who promoted the virtue of rugged individualism? In any case, these are all rather scary notions, particularly in a world where human worth is measured in dollar signs. In a world that hyper-emphasizes material reality, acquisition and control as the keys to survival. “Survival of the fittest” (a cooptation of Darwin’s research) not only requires control of material resources, but also control of relationships and of access to relationships that provide social capital. It’s not much of a leap to the toxic belief that the “fittest” are those who occupy the higher strata in any cultural hierarchy. The FBI agent’s daddy probably wasn’t a monster after all; he was likely just trying to make his life matter. Fear makes rather ordinary people commit extraordinary acts of evil. In an “every man-for-himself” world, fear makes ontological sense. That’s why fear sells so well.
Who’s the kid with all the friends?
We know that fear sells stuff – teeth whiteners, car tires, nightly news, and the selling starts early. Saturday morning television in the 70’s regularly taunted kids with this jingle: “Who’s the kid with all the friends hanging round? The kid with the Sno Man, Sno Cone.” The message was in-your-face clear: having one of these contraptions made one worthy of friends. That 70’s message travels all the way up memory lane to the present day. If you don’t buy the right fruit cup (of all things), you look like an out-of-touch “drainer”. . . and as the real estate ad reminds us, being a Not You means that you’re not only a loser, but you also look and act really silly. The function of fear and its operational efficiency remain the same, whether the “product” is shampoo, funeral insurance, or a belief system. Failure to consume or “buy in” puts you at risk of being a loser, a “less than” person in some system of cultural metrics. Fear is the psychological supplement that bulks up our egos. The problem with a bulked-up ego is that it never gets enough; therefore, there never seems to be enough. It entrances us with false belief that mattering is about having more than or being better than someone else. The trance of fear can turn us into vigilantes, constantly judging ourselves and others – always on the lookout for threats to our position in the systems of cultural metrics. Under the influence of this trance, we grasp after culturally produced “fig leaves” (e.g. heterosexism, racism, nativism) to cover the fear-based belief that existing as a mere human being is not enough.
Why Wake Up?
Fear is mystifying precisely because it works silently and efficiently in the background. Instead of being aware of our entrapping beliefs and relational habits, we react reflexively. Our actions are driven by our beliefs about our “place” in the world and what we must do to make the world work for us. Most of the time, we don’t actually think of them as beliefs; we call them truths. Why wake up? Let me offer three good reasons to start.
First, we get entrapped by the privilege of not noticing. Let me share a quick story. Some years ago, a group of visually impaired students in Baltimore used their newly acquired photography skills to take pictures of cracks in the sidewalk. They sent their pictures to city officials because they knew that sighted people couldn’t “see” the cracks. Not having to think about a potential problem is a privilege. When we can move through the “taken-for-granted” routines of life without thinking about access, safety, or welcome, we are enjoying a privilege. If we can walk down a sidewalk without fear of falling into a gaping crack because its very size allows us to see it before we trip over it, we are enjoying a privilege. If we can go into an office building restroom without wondering whether the bathroom door will be wide enough to accommodate a wheel chair, we are enjoying a privilege. If we can order a wedding cake without having to worry that “freedom of religion” will be used as justification for refusing us service, we are enjoying a privilege. To enjoy a privilege is not wrong. However, to resist noticing that these privileges are routinely denied to other people because they simply are who they happen to exist in this world as themselves is to surrender to the trance of fear.
Resistance to noticing takes many forms. One way is to claim compassion fatigue, as if our hearts and minds are too small or weak to withstand the rigors of caring. Another is to insist that paying attention to the impact of our words on other people is an abrogation of “free speech” and an unfair and weighty burden. What does it say about a culture when being called politically correct is a criticism? In her speech to the Class of 2017 Harvard graduates, President Drew Faust implored them to become “noticers.” These are her words:
“Noticing — not just passively seeing but actively looking — is connecting your mind and awareness to something beyond yourself and often beyond your existing knowledge and assumptions.” Faust continued, “Noticing is the pathway out of the echo chamber of your own mind.”
Second, fear truncates our responses to two options: attack or accommodate. I believe it is the Dalai Lama who says that we should thank people who hurt us for being life’s teachers. Let me be very clear: in no way should we conflate the Dali Lama’s thoughts with the demand from the oppressors thank them for oppressing us. What he is saying however, is that meeting a violation with another violation does nothing to heal our troubled world. Using victimhood as a justification for harming others is a fear-driven act. Richard Rohr calls it “sacred violence,” meaning that we sacralize violence and call it justice. It does not heal; it does not “bring closure” to grief. As Rohr point out, our human history is saturated with violence done as recompense for another violence committed generations before. It’s rather like Hatfield-McCoy on globally disastrous scale.
Here’s an example. For way too long, violence against women (by men) was just tolerated; it was accepted as a cultural norm, and for some a duty. We don’t have to go back too many years to find a magazine ad, a John Wayne movie or a popular television show in which a woman gets a good solid whack to bring her to her senses and “put her in her place.” That said, women are not made stronger or safer by a wholesale assault on all men. Contrary to the tweet sent out by columnist Emily Lindin, we don’t solve the problem of sexual violence by sacrificing innocent men.
The other end of the spectrum is accommodation, often manifest by a rush to forgiveness in the wake of unspeakable horror. Sadly, examples of such acts are numerous, and the rush to forgiveness is usually first articulated by the victimized communities. Following the mass shooting at Emmanuel A. M. E. church, the late Gwen Ifill moderated a Town Hall-type dialogue during which prominent voices called for forgiveness. After the taped session ended, BLM activist Muyihidin Moye spoke with another journalist and suggested that the rush to forgiveness is a way of accommodating and adjusting to white supremacy. In Moye’s words, this kind of “forgiveness” says: ‘Let me accommodate you so you’re not scared, we’ll just get on the bridge and hold hands . . . we’re over it.’ In other words, generations are taught to endure terrorism graciously so as not to make the situation worse. With all the fire and clarity of a thirty-two-year-old, Moye (recently murdered) made a compelling point.
Graciously accommodating terrorism is an intergenerational survival tactic. It is rooted in the sure knowledge that people who are committed to protecting “power-over” are most dangerous when they are frightened. Few things frighten them more than a marginalized community speaking their truths with clarity and resolve. Samaria Rice whose 12-year-old son Tamir was killed by police, was roundly scandalized by the reigning powers in Cleveland, OH because she dared to grieve “ungraciously” and out loud. There is no doubt that forgiveness liberates our capacity to heal from unspeakable hurt. However, when pain and anger go unacknowledged or is actively suppressed, there is little opportunity for healing possibilities of forgiveness to evolve and emerge in relationship. What happens instead is collective amnesia, a trance-like state where nothing new happens. In this way, fear heightens our susceptibility to ever more entrenched cycles of violence and violation of human dignity.
Third, fear drives the obsession with gaining, maintaining, and protecting rank in the hierarchy of human worth. The social and economic consequences of this obsession are dire. We are unable to act for the common good. Blogger Umair Haque makes the case that the United States lags behind other industrial, capitalist democracies because we can’t get beyond racial divisions to create the universal safety networks (e.g. health care, equitable education). Much as it was when the Freedmen’s Bureau hospitals were closed during Reconstruction, the argument for the current attacks on healthcare as a universal good focus on cost-cutting and perceived economic efficiencies. Interestingly, poor people of all races benefitted from healthcare services: in the 19th century, freed slaves benefitted and in the 21st century poor, Southern whites. Ultimately, the denial of universal goods is costlier to society as a whole. However, the trance of fear makes the illusion of separation and the myths of supremacy (along multiple social dimensions) more appealing than the realities of “doing the math” reveal.
How can we wake up?
Our bodies speak volumes; let’s listen.
I’ll share the rest of the scene from Mississippi Burning. The Southern FBI agent told his counterpart that one day he looked at his daddy, and he knew his daddy had poisoned Monroe’s mule. And with that look alone, his daddy knew that his son knew his secret. The agent guessed that his daddy felt ashamed about what he had done. However rather than acknowledge what they each knew by looking, he passed on his fear in the form of life lesson: you must secure your status in the racial hierarchy at any cost. “Son, if you ain’t better than a n*gger, who are you better than?” That scene was from an old movie, admittedly dramatic and terrifying because it was meant to be and the times they portrayed were. But consider this scene, very current, very real, and mystifyingly mundane.
It’s a bright January morning. I pull my car up to the inspection bay of a local service station. The attendant is busy inspecting a car, and I wait my turn standing by the door of his office. When he completed his transaction with his customer, he walked past me through the door to his office and never made eye contact. He eventually turned and stared at me – no words. I was forced to “explain” why I was there.
Me: I need to get my car inspected (and I immediately opened my purse – I “needed” to show him that I had cash.)
Attendant: Need your keys and registration.
Me: Oh, I left them on the seat of my car in front of the inspection bay for you.
Attendant: Need them in here.
I left to fetch those items for him, but at that point, it was “game on”! I returned; he started walking away and I put them on the counter.
Attendant: Make and model.
I told him, but this time I was careful to remove any lilt of friendliness from my voice. We both had working mirror neurons; we were able to “read” each other. With his body and less than fifteen words, he was able to convey studied indifference, if not hostility, to my presence. With the tone of my two-word final response, I was able to convey: “I-want-absolutely-nothing-from-you-except-what-you-have-to-do-for-me-because-I-am-paying you.” (Translation: assertion of whatever dominance I could muster.)
None of this exchange between the attendant and me had been scripted by either of us. We had no personal reason to dislike each other; we hadn’t seen each other before and would likely never see each other again. What happened? While he was working, I noticed that my throat was constricted, my neck was tight, and I literally felt as if I had a clenched fist in my chest. I was paying a lot of attention to the stories swirling around in my head about the attendant. (I was pretty sure that he didn’t like President Obama and had probably voted for that guy currently in the White House.) It was then that I started noticing the posture of my fear. That prompted me to breathe and pay attention to the stories my body held – which led to wonder about whether constriction feels “normal” to me. It came to me that the constriction was likely my way of controlling or covering the emotions of “not belonging” – of feeling unwelcome. Simple acknowledgement of my emotions was liberating. By accepting the pain of feeling unwelcomed (even by a stranger I would likely not see again), I could also accept my yearning for pleasant if not meaningful connection. I no longer felt tethered to his fear – or whatever he was going on for him. When he returned, I paid him and smiled a genuine thank you to him. To which he responded (in much more fluid tone): “Yeah, you’re all set now. Have a nice day.”
Start questioning “normal.”
Sometimes things seem normal because we’ve gone numb. Everyday there is another atrocious headline, and they all tell the same story about violations of human dignity around the globe; barrier walls have tripled since the 1990’s. Although we cringe when the bloviator-in-chief talks about his wall, we have almost come to accept “wall-ism” as a way of life. It’s totally understandable. As the poet Wordsworth wrote:
The world is too much with us; late and soon
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…
We have given our hearts away…
For this, for everything we are out of tune.
In the first 45 days of 2018, there have been 13 deadly assaults with guns. If there are no fatalities or just a few, it barely gets a mention on the nightly news. (That’s when the news channels resort to stories about wild turkeys clogging up street traffic.) The headline grabbing tragedies get the predictable “thought and prayers” from the very politicians who enable the carnage. How many times can we experience these deadly hypocrisies without tuning out? Even our own protestations against injustice can become ways to numb our awareness. How can we reclaim our hearts and our power? I think we can begin by probing – asking prickly questions about the story behind the story – not for rhetorical effect, but for answers. We can begin insisting that violence against humanity is not “normal.” Many of us are troubled by the government-mandated assaults on undocumented families. Most of us, however, are protected from having intimate knowledge of the abuse and devastation they suffer. In some sense, we can resign ourselves to the malevolence of the administration of or the over-reaching of ICE; we register our complaints and move on with our normal lives. What if, instead, we choose to know the human stories behind the headlines? What if we make it our business to know who profits from violence against humanity? I recently learned that 62% of the people being held for deportation languish for months in private prisons (a growth industry in the United States). Someone is selling fear (e.g. they are rapists, gang-bangers, and immigrant job stealers). Suppose we demand to know who is profiting from the sale of fear?
There are other, maybe less taxing ways, to interrupt the trance. Some enlightenment literature gurus emphasize the virtue “right speech,” one aspect of which is clarity. This practice is particularly important during these days when “alternative facts” are used to entrance, gaslight and befuddle the entire population. Some alt-facts, traditionally known as lies, are patently ridiculous (e.g. the huge size of the inauguration crowd) and can be easily dismissed. Others are a bit more insidious and may creep unnoticed into our consciousness. For example, it may feel risky to question anyone’s “freedom of religion” or “right to free speech.” But we may need to ask the prickly questions. What if, instead of trance-walking through a contentious conversation about “free speech,” we stopped to clarify what “free” means? Is it “free” as in there is no cost? To anyone? No consequences? Free to whom? When is it free? Who pays the cost? Until we have the courage to ask the prickly questions and clarify our terms, we may just we be puffing, posturing, and using words to avoid talking about what’s real. I call those “proxy” conversations; they may be good for power positioning, but they do nothing to wake us up to new possibilities.
“Our task is to wake up from the illusion of separation.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
Do we want to wake up?
Marcia A. Owens does. Marcia is a Southern white woman now in her sixties. In the book Living without Enemies, she shares her journey of learning to be present, with both victims and perpetrators of violence. Without regard for “purity codes” (how innocent was he) or racial codes, she would hold prayer vigils with families on the corners in Durham, NC to grieve the loss of their loved one. If asked why she chooses to grieve the death of a young black man gunned down by perhaps by his associates in violence, her response is simple: “We lost a brother tonight.” She learned that the opposite of violence is willingness to be open to love. She is teaching me that opening to love loosens the stranglehold of fear. We learn to breathe. The less fearful we are, the more loving we can become. Our hearts grow more spacious, and our spirits free. Our precious boundaries that we construct to protect our separateness become places of meeting and flow with one another. We wake up.
Sometimes art moves us in ways that long disquisitions (such as this one) cannot. So, I close this reflection by sharing a piece of music that I have found inspiring. In his Broadway debut as Pierre in Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812, Josh Groban offered a powerful rendition of Dust and Ashes. I know the title doesn’t sound promising, but through the words we experience Pierre’s awakening from numb resignation. . .
“Is this how I die
Ridiculed and laughed at
Wearing clown shoes…
Frightened…pretending, and preposterous and dumb
to rage-filled awareness . . .
Was there ever anyway my life could be…
Such a storm of feelings inside of me …
Why am I screaming, why am I shaking
Was there something that I missed?
Did I squander my divinity?
to liberating possibility. . .
They say we are asleep until we fall in love
We are children of dust and ashes…
But when we fall in love we wake up
And I’m so ready
To wake up now. . .
I want to wake up. . .
I invite you to listen to it. You can find it on YouTube. I promise you it’s uplifting. And awakening.