For a while now I have had a sequel in mind to the series of reflections I posted under the heading We Shall Overcome. The post would (will) be about the flip side of the ideas I was exploring in that series. Whereas in those posts I was interested in the fact that what human beings most have in common is the incredibly large numbers of ways we are different and unique, I intend to explore the ways in which we are perceived by others and perceive ourselves to be members of groups and in that way seem not so unique. I am male, not female. I am Euro-American, not Canadian or Filipino or Chilean or Kenyan. I am a Baby Boomer, not a Millennial…etc., etc., etc. You get the drift.
However, events have been getting in the way. Almost two weeks ago, the largest mass shooting to date occurred at The Pulse club in Orlando, and I found myself as wrapped up in the ensuing turmoil as everyone else. I was overwhelmed by feelings of grief, anger, frustration and hopelessness; along with (ever increasing) contempt for Congress’s persistent inability to deal with any issues that have real, direct consequences for public well-being and safety. I was saddened by the fact that the victims, many of them Latino, of this assault were mostly young people, with long lives yet to be lived, who were murdered precisely because they identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersexual or queer; or were friends of people who did. I was saddened that the killer had a long history of violent conduct toward others, and yet no one was able in time to reach him in a compassionate way, to get to the roots of his distress and help him leave the path he was on. Pervading the whole episode were tidal waves of fear, some of it stoked by people – political leaders especially – with axes to grind, but most of it erupting spontaneously from the subconscious pockets where we all stash our habitual fears.
If you are like me, the fears that surged forth had a lot to do with the easy availability of highly destructive firearms to anyone who’s got the money to buy them. My deep fears of the direction I see politicians on the right and the people who bankroll them wanting to take the society roared up to the surface. I was overwhelmed by feelings of vulnerability and helplessness as I watched others’ fears pour out as well. If you belonged to the LGBTIQ community, already carrying a burden of marginalization in most cases and victimization in many, how could you not feel personally threatened and assaulted to see the homophobia that still haunts many corners of the society expressed in the form of a bloody and terrifying massacre? Yet, those of us who felt we were on the receiving end of the assault were not the only ones whose deep fears swept across the land.
On the gun rights side, other fears came to the surface: fears that certain constitutionally guaranteed rights were under attack; fears that one’s ability to protect oneself from threats by criminals, by outsiders, by government agents, or some other Others, were going to be stripped away by forces already lined up against one; and fears that Muslim terrorists are spread across the country, ready to create murderous havoc whenever it suits them. Mixed into the blend were also the fears of adherents of a certain brand of “Christianity”, that sees growing social acceptance of people who identify as LGBTIQ as evidence Satan is getting the upper hand and should be resisted at all costs. And through it all, there swept waves of the formless fears that always run when things happen people find threatening, have no warning of and don’t see coming, and after the fact have no clear understanding of.
I’m not big on fear. I recognize it is deeply rooted in our biological makeup. I know it is a force that has driven the most abhorrent forms of human conduct going back through millennia. I also know whole industries depend on the promotion and cultivation of fear – from the military industrial complex and the liability insurance – personal-injury/malpractice law complex; to the cosmetics, fashion, automobile, travel and domestic products industries that thrive by suggesting how imperfect our lives are if we don’t look certain ways, drive certain vehicles, vacation in certain places, or decorate our homes with certain furnishings. Personally more to the point, I have my own ongoing history with fear directing, shaping, and inhibiting my life’s progress. As a survivor of bullying in early adolescence, I am still affected by deeply internalized impacts that I have only recently recognized as signs of PTSD. I have a highly evolved fear of failure, traceable no doubt to being the product of a culture and a top tier education where high achievement and performance are the standards by which personal value and worth are judged.
Finally, I have fears grounded in stuff I learned in the course of that education. Knowing more than your average bear about the circumstances that led to the fall of the Roman Empire and that led to and followed the breakthrough to the modern capitalist order marked by the French Revolution, I sometimes lie awake nights worrying about the magnitude of the historic turn now unfolding on every continent, Antarctica included. Having spent part of my career working in energy policy, I know more than the average bear about the magnitude of the threats posed by climate change and why those threats should not be denied or trivialized. Spend a few months as I did working closely with people from the electric utilities as they struggle to restore power to the 85% of the households in Connecticut who were knocked out by the freak October 30, 2011 snow storm, and the prospect of more and more extreme weather events taking out critical infrastructure systems will also keep you awake nights.
By now it is a foregone conclusion that fear will drive the outcome of the US Presidential election. Neither of the leading candidates arouses much positive delight. Donald Trump’s campaign is overwhelmingly fear-based. If Hillary Clinton wins, despite the strong negative views many Americans rightly or wrongly have held about her for a long time, it will be as much because of the immense fear Trump arouses in people who do not belong to his core constituencies, as because of any success she may have setting forth a vision that excites and inspires voters.
And yet. And yet fear is really not where it’s at. Not when you’ve paid a visit to the Other Side and come back to talk about it as I did. Not when your frame of reference is broader, deeper, higher, and more expansive than the stuff of the daily news and the permutations of contemporary public affairs. More on that next time around…