On Fear


Arrakis - The Desert Planet Every Bit As Empty as Ourselves

Paul Atreides came so close! But like so many others before him, Frank Herbert’s protagonist from the awesome Dune series (the Muad’Dib himself) looked into the abyss, then entirely missed the point.

I’m referring, of course, to one of the most prolific lines from his incredible inter galactic epic; that famous Bene Gesserit litany against fear:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Which at first glance sounds strikingly similar (at least to me) to FDR’s own quintessential quote:

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Each are inspirational to be sure, in their affirmation of the human spirit and our ability to transcend the constraints of our own mental limitations, and of our ability to rise above them. These men of conviction seem to invoke that famous and perhaps most interesting of all literary conflicts – that of man vs. himself.

In their message, both Herbert and FDR attack fear as little more than a passing fancy, a product entirely of the mind, one that is somehow less “real” than the world around us, or especially less real than ourselves. But if you’re asking me (which you are since you’re reading this), each of them entirely miss the point after pointing out the essentially illusory or transient nature of fear. Put simply, their conclusions are not logically reached by the premises argued on their behalf!

Where they go wrong is in the idea that while fear is in and of itself entirely unimportant, our other more valorous emotions, like “valour”, “bravery”, or perhaps even “productivity”, are entirely worthy of adoration.

Am I wrong in calling it a contradiction that calling fear illusory and impermanent somehow leads to the affirmation that these other mental states, or even the beings that produce them in such a temporary and capricious fashion are somehow more permanent?

Shouldn’t watching fear pass through ourselves, witnessing it’s effects, and understanding its ethereal nature guide us to the understanding that all other mental states (even those like “bravery”, “altruism”, and “valor”) are essentially no more real? If “fear” is false, and hardly worth acknowledging, then why is are these other emotions so worthy of worship? How are they not essentially identical, except through our subjective appraisal?

If fear comes and goes, simply as the product of our previous experiences, our biological and chemical make-up, and the configuration of our present surroundings, then shouldn’t bravery be dismissed as an equally fleeting fancy? Isn’t it brought about by the very same process?

Why deny one while affirming the other?

And – I’m asking both myself and you now – What is a person beyond his or her thoughts, feelings, beliefs and mental events? What am I, and what are you, without consciousness, without that mental spark of self-awareness, or of awareness at all (since most of humanity seems to lack real self-awareness).

What are we without our values, our principles, and our cherished moral codes?

If they’re as illusory as fear, then are we any less real than we previously assumed?

Please answer this question for yourself before continuing on.

If all of our beliefs, our morals and values are every bit as transient as fear (and of course they must be!), then why do we so cherish that subset of so called core values that we’ve determined are essentially commands from on high? Why have we transformed these transient ideas, these passing fancies, into the words of the Divine, into the rules governing the entire universe?

How can people place the Ten Commandments – again, no more than a set of ideas – ahead of other ideas, like Chemistry, Physics, or perhaps Evolution? At least there’s evidence that Gravity and Dinosaurs once existed. What do we have of the supposed event on Mount Sinai (other than the pile of rock itself?).

Shouldn’t we realize that these things – these “eternal principles” – are equally as impermanent as fear? And aren’t they every bit as irrelevant, at least in the universal sense?

Or – is there something to all this religious mumbo-jumbo, to this spiritual gobbledygook, and this pseudo-philosophical (but mostly ideological) attachment to our seemingly impermanent selves?

Are we something more than this crude flesh; this physical accumulation of atoms governed by the same laws of physics, chemistry, and biology that operates on everything else in the universe? Are we really so different from the other species that coexist with us on this planet? And from those that were here before?

Does the divine spark live within us? Does something like a soul exist? If it does – is it worth defending, protecting, and valuing over everything else in the world? Is there something permanent to our very being (as humans) which is more valuable than that which exists “out there” in the world at large?

Or are we just kidding ourselves?

Have we created this strange fiction to encourage our own selfish ideas, selfish agendas, and selfish behavior?

Are these systems being used to keep the downtrodden from rebelling, the underprivileged from revolting, and those born with a silver-spoon in their mouths firmly established as no less than Lords on Earth – rulers established by Divine Right (read: the status quo?).

It seems quite foolish, at least to me, to argue only that fear itself holds no value, while arguing the very opposite for the exact same thing – that state of mind and those emotions like “reverence”, “conformity”, or especially “faith”, which prop up these rigid systems of hierarchy, of authority – of indifference to the very nature of reality itself.

While these men – Herbert and FDR – visionaries in their own right, each came so close to creating something beautiful, something extraordinary, or even revolutionary, it seems to me that they dropped the ball at the point of departure from tradition and at the point where we needed them most.

They made their way to the edge of the abyss, stared down into the void, and trembled at the edge of that cliff, allowing the terror to pass through their minds, then reaffirmed the very thing that their experience should have led them to reject: that we are permanent beings with a stable self.

In reality, we are selfless, impermanent, and illusory in every sense of the word.

The only thing permanent about us is our constant state of flux, which makes us superficial, causing us to feel fear.

And it’s quite obvious to me that we’ll take any step – no matter how ridiculous, no matter how immoral, and especially no matter how self-defeating. to grasp at some sense of permanence!

We’ll give up our very freedoms, those same freedoms that we’d refuse to relinquish in the political sense, but are equally as willing to surrender in the realm of the spiritual, to convince ourselves that we can find some heavenly grace, that we are loved by God, and that we’ll exist beyond our deaths.

We’ll affirm the exact opposite of what reality and our daily experience clearly points out to us- that we will one day wither away and die, leaving behind only the trail of our acts, of our everyday behavior, and our influence on both the planet and those around us.

And it’s in this way, and only in this way, that we can find some sense of a permanent nature.

It’s in this way, and only in this way, that some us think we can find some sense of meaning in our impermanent nature.

But like I just said, in our fleeting and temporary existence, in our insecure, terrifying, and all too dreadfully short lives on this earth and in this realm, what’s important isn’t to deny reality, to reject that we are illusory beings, but to celebrate it, to rejoice in it, and to use it to develop a deeper and more realistic understanding of ourselves, and the universe at large.

As a final thought, with his thinly-veiled reference to “the little-death” (le petit mort, anyone?) just what exactly was Frank Herbert trying to say about sex, if anything?

Please let me know if you’ve got any ideas about this. It’s been a while since I’ve participated in literary criticism, and as you are probably well aware, my once well-honed skills are now more than a bit rusty!

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