This Is What Literature Is For: Helping Put a Name and a Face to Our Fear—So We Can Confront It.
We all know what’s going on. And in case you’re reading this after the pandemic is over, I’m writing this in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak. Fear is rampant. Misinformation is everywhere. Leadership at the top is blithering and ineffective at best, malicious and dangerous at worst. And the states—The states, my friend, are decidedly NOT united. Some governors, like mine—Jay Inslee—have been cautious from the beginning and have shown true leadership. Others have been less cautious, favoring economics over public safety.
These Are the Days of Our Lives
It’s a terrifying time. Few people were around for the Spanish Flu of 1918, so that puts us in an “unprecedented-in-our-lifetime” situation. Uncertainty breeds fear. And fear kills more than anything.
In ancient times, when faced with uncertain phenomena, tribal and nomadic people would turn to the eldest and the wisest to explain what was happening. The problem was that those elders and wise men and women didn’t know any better than anyone else what was happening.
What they did know, however, was that if they told the people that, there would be panic. Panic causes chaos, violence, and dissent. It is the enemy of order. And since the eldest and wisest tended to be in charge, it was very much in their interest to keep order.
Creating Myths and Preserving Peace
So they made up stories. Lightning in the sky? That was Coyote, or Raven, or Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods. Earthquakes and tsunamis? You’ve angered Poseidon. Sometimes, as was the case with the indigenous peoples of my homeland, they made the mountains themselves gods, and personified them with benevolent or malevolent motives, depending upon their purpose.
Generations before the Hebrews that wrote Genesis, the Sumerians told of a flood and a man who received instructions about how to rebuild afterward. See the legend of Gilgamesh.
Some versions of the story of Siddhartha Guatama (The Buddha to you lay-people) even have him being born of a virgin around the winter solstice.
My point is not that all religions are the same. My point is not that all religions are worthless. My point is that religions are stories and myths that turned into lifestyles for their devotees. Religion gives people comfort when they can’t figure out why something is happening.
So What’s Wrong With That?
I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me? What’s wrong with a lie?
The thing is, most religions and scriptures have things called thought-terminating clichés that help people to simply compartmentalize and forget about the critical questions that will lead them down a rabbit hole they may not be ready for. Some examples from Christianity include “God has a plan.” “Ours is not to question why.” “Jesus wept.” “Do not put the Lord, Thy God, to the test.” And those are just a few.
“Daddy, why did that car run over Charlie?”
“Well, honey, I don’t know, but God has a plan. Now stop crying and let’s go get some ice cream.”
“But Daddy, why would God take Charlie away from me?”
“Sweetheart, do you know what the shortest verse in the bible is?”
“No, Daddy, what is it?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well, darling, it means that even Jesus, God’s own son went through suffering. We might not understand it, but it’s all a part of God’s plan to bring you closer to him.”
If you don’t see a problem with that, then you should probably quit reading now. Read your bible. Find your comfort. I don’t want to take it away from you.
But if you’re like me, and you feel like slapping the taste out of daddy’s mouth on that one, well, hang on. We’ll get there in a minute.
Why Literature Is Better…
Here are some of my favorite quotes from secular literature (movies included) that do a healthier job of dealing with fear than the “Word of God” does.
1. “Don’t Panic.”
This gem comes from Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I mentioned panic earlier. There’s another great line from my favorite novel, Life of Pi, that talks about panic while in the water. Pi’s swimming guru tells him “A mouthful of water will not kill you, but panic will…” Panic is like a complete malfunction of the brain. All reason and logic fails you and all you can focus on is getting out of the situation. Consequences be damned. More often than not, however, those consequences are the things that are going to kill you rather than the original perceived threat.
Case and point: Toilet paper. For the first three weeks of this thing, you couldn’t find a package of toilet paper on the shelves. Now you can find a little bit, but people are still stockpiling it. For what? Not to put out TMI or anything, but I, a single individual, have managed to ride out six weeks of this plague with a single package of twelve mega-rolls, and I still have three rolls left before I have to buy more.
But the news said there was a run on toilet paper, so everyone hoarded it. Now nobody’s going to need toilet paper for a year. It might seem stupid, but that’s exactly what caused the stock market crash on October 29th, 1929 that started the Great Depression. Panic. Pure and simple. Panic caused a global economic crisis. And that wasn’t the first, nor the last time.
2. “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
A friend of mine posted this on Facebook this week. It is, of course, a line from Yoda in Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace. I know, Star Wars is hardly literature.
Except that it is.
It’s a pop-culture phenomenon, yes, but it’s also a story that’s thousands of years old. George Lucas built his narrative based on Joseph Campbell’s “Monomyth” or “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” The story of Star Wars has been told in different landscapes with different characters for a thousand generations.
And yes, Yoda’s argument is a logical fallacy, a slippery slope. But that doesn’t make it meaningless or irrelevant. Want another example to back it up? I refer you to my other favorite sage from the silver screen, Jules Winnfield from Pulp Fiction. “Now when you yell at me, I get nervous, and when I get nervous, I get scared. And when motherf*ckers get scared, that’s when motherf*ckers get shot.”
Both Yoda and Jules are right. It may be a slippery slope, but it’s a REALLY slippery one, and one must be careful. I’m not saying it’s bad to be afraid. Fear is a natural response, and it’s healthy. But when it’s left unchecked, it will wreak more havoc on you than whatever external threat you’re facing.
The quote’s too long to be a title, so here it is: “I was as afraid as the next man in my time and maybe more so. But with the years, fear had come to be regarded as a form of stupidity to be classed with overdrafts, acquiring a venereal disease or eating candies. Fear is a child’s vice and while I loved to feel it approach, as one does with any vice, it was not for grown men and the only thing to be afraid of was the presence of true and imminent danger in a form that you should be aware of and not be a fool if you were responsible for others.”
I’ll be honest, this comes from a Hemingway work that I’ve not read yet, but I thought it appropriate to our time. If you’re wondering, it’s from a book called True at First Light.
There’s a lot to criticize about Hemingway if you’re a feminist. But if you apply what he says about men to both sexes, then you can find some real value there. Women have just as much need for courage as men, and Hemingway does a brilliant job of acknowledging both fear and duty, and how duty needs to win out. We, all of us, have a duty to one another. Hemingway, and those of the lost generation and their children understood that.
Unfortunately the message got lost. During the turmoil of the sixties, we lost faith in the government, and in one another. We became selfish, and we became tribal. And as I posted yesterday, we banded together as “One Nation Under God”—a phrase that is in direct violation of the First Amendment, and which came about in the 1950s during the Red Scare led by maniacs like Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
America is not a Christian nation. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. The first amendment to the United States constitution—without which the document would have never been ratified in 1789—says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Then it talks about freedom of speech, press, and assembly. The separation of church and state is built into our foundation. In fact, it’s the first priority. And when I was a churchgoer, preachers and Christian-swill-merchants alike worked tirelessly, lying to perpetuate this myth that we’re some kind of divine “City on a Hill” that William Bradford envisioned in 1620.
The reality is, I don’t need God to tell me that if my brother is hungry I should feed him. I simply need compassion, and we’re all born with that. If I rely on God, I might be told by God’s prophets that the “brother” which my compassion compels me to assist is actually an agent of the devil and a terrible sinner and a trap and any number of other things to keep me from caring from him.
I can’t explain this behavior from church folk. Except by way of fear.
What the hell does that even mean? Why? Because he’s so much bigger and wiser and more powerful than us? Is it like Jonathan Edwards said in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?” Are we simply sinful sinewy spiders, spinning a string and dangling from God’s wrathful fingertip above the incendiary pit of Hell?
Riddle me this, Christian. Your theology says God created everything. That includes time. Einstein proved that time and space are connected, and we have TONS of scientific data to back that up, so if God created space, then he also created time.
If God created time, then God exists outside of spacetime. If God exists outside of time, then God perceives past, present, and future simultaneously.
Christianity says that if the created beings of God don’t recognize a Hebrew man who lived and died as a martyr 2000 years ago as the Son of God and the Savior of humanity, then those beings will suffer eternity in Hell upon their death.
If that is true, then God, being omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent—as the bible says he is—is NOT good. Do the math. And I’m not even talking about real math, let’s take it to the ultimate extreme and do the Ken Hamm Creationist Museum fake math. That math says the world is only about six-thousand years old (remember that story about the flood—the one that was actually written a few generations before the Hebrews got hold of it? Well, based on that myth, these modern day humans actually believe that the Earth has only been around for six-thousand years).
Six thousand years, divided by twenty (the timespan of a generation), is 300 generations. Now, by the Bible’s own timeline, there was no Messiah for two thirds of that time. So two thirds of the generations created by this supposedly
benign nay, perfectly good being are in Hell. Furthermore, because God is outside of time and knows past, present, and future all at once, that supposedly loving God knew that he was creating beings that would reject him and suffer eternity in hell.
How’s that “Jesus wept” answer working for you now?
Anyway, as soon as tsunami of thought hit me, I jumped ship. I couldn’t believe in a God that would knowingly create beings just to send them to Hell. Still can’t. And with no hell, there’s no need for salvation. And with no need for salvation, there’s no need for Jesus.
And so as to not appear myopic, I’ve studied more about Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism than the average American has. I’m just most familiar with Evangelical Christianity, so those are the references I use. Each of those other religions, however, have their own logical flaws.
It just so happens that the Christian rubes are also the ones who’ve been f*cking up the country for the last 40 years, so I’m kind of focusing on that narrative.
So what are we left with? Ourselves?
Yeah. You are. Is that so bad?
Look, I know the church taught you that you are nothing, but that’s just not true. You’re a miracle of nature! You are made of the same stuff that forms the sun that rises every morning. You’re made of the same atoms that make up the moon, the sky, the earth, and even me. That’s right. You and I are connected on a molecular level.
That is MIRACULOUS!
You are a miracle. Maybe there was a prime mover that set this all in motion, but if there was, that force has f*cked off to the next universe. Over 4.5 billion years, you, me, and all of the other life on this planet evolved to be the miracle of humanity that we see today.
And if you don’t see a miracle in humanity, that’s your problem.
Yes. There are morons. Yes. There are psychopaths. Yes, there are stupid Boomers who stand in line and want to sample everything on the menu while the rest of us sit there exposed in the store to an invisible killer virus waiting for them.
It’s easy to look at that—hell, you don’t even need to look at that, you can just look at Trump supporters—and say humanity is depraved, sinful, and desperately wicked above all things.
But why would you focus on that small minority?
Focus on the people who are keeping society together right now. The grocery store workers. The pharmacists and the techs that support them. The hospital and other healthcare workers. Public safety officials (the ones who don’t shoot brown people for no reason, anyway). Those people are risking their own health and safety out of a sense of duty.
Many of them could be making unemployment. They could succumb to their fear and take medical leave. They could do any number of things to get out of serving humanity during this crisis.
But they’re not.
They’re getting up every morning and they’re going to work. They’re standing there with masks on wiping down grocery carts and registers and counters. They’re working double shifts to make sure that Roberta in room C3 is going to make it through the night. They’re exposing themselves to patients who need their medications, pandemic or no. And they’re patrolling the streets to make sure that desperate people aren’t making bad decisions.
It’s people who are fixing this mess. It’s not God.
Donald Trump is not the antichrist. The man is worse than worthless, but he’s not some biblical sign. Earthquakes, fires, floods, tornados, hurricanes, and other natural disasters are not a sign of some apocalyptic seal being broken by an angel. They’re a sign of f*cking CLIMATE CHANGE!!! Russia acting like Russia is par for the course. Vladimir Putin is a douchebag, an oligarch, and a maniac, but he’s not the antichrist either. HE’S NOT NICOLAE CARPATHIA. Those books were fiction and they made their authors a lot of money by putting crazy end-times ideas into peoples’ heads.
COVID-19 is not a plague of the end times. It’s a very powerful virus that happens every now and then like the Spanish Flu.
To quote my good friend and bandmate Jason Johnson, “No, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just the way it feels.”
Stay safe, boys and girls. Don’t be stupid. Keep your wits about you and realize that you don’t need some invisible man in the sky to keep you safe. Think about the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion all thought they could find what they needed in a lie. The lesson of that movie is that you have greatness within you already, and you don’t need a goddamn wizard, sorcerer, priest, shaman, or even God to give it to you. It’s there. Inside you. You just have to tap into it, face your fears, and do your duty for the people around you.