“The difference between Despair/And Fear”

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Events such as the tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan, devastating earthquakes or hurricanes that result in high death tolls, industrial accidents that destroy communities—these seem impossible to control and blame is hard to place, even in the latter case. News coverage in such situations tends to focus on damage and recovery efforts, then shifts to the next drama. Tragedies wrought by specific human perpetrators, however, become media spectacles here in the USA. The same few seconds of terrible footage repeatedly fill television and computer screens; viewers feel drawn into the activities of SWAT teams and reporters and the compelling speculations of forensic psychologists, terrorism experts, social commentators, politicians, witnesses. There are heated exchanges on social media forums.

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I’m beginning to believe societies get the popular culture they want or, alas, deserve (late Rome’s “bread and circuses,” anyone?). The circuses give us what society’s members, apparently, want to consume. Art, however, offers what they need, whether or not they want it. During times of media frenzy, when the culture in which I live seems numbed by “infotainment” and nonstop visual and audio coverage of tragic events, I find myself turning to art—usually poetry—for grounding, for solace, for affirmation of the human spirit and for a way to confront human truths.

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I do not suggest that poetry necessarily comforts. Often, it wears me ragged, forces me to wrestle with ambiguities, to question my values. Sometimes, art brings me to tears.

I do not consider these results to be negative results. These reactions are human reactions; I am reminded of my humanity through my engagement with art.

A good little anthology for times of grief is The Handbook of Heartbreak, edited by Robert Pinsky. Pinsky’s selections cover the human spectrum of sorrows: broken romances, dead pets, war, disaster, family and social losses and the desolate emptiness of depression, sorrow that is concrete and existential, spiritual and personal and cultural.

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Speculation is something inquisitive minds do well, but it is easy to believe our speculations, to forget they are merely imaginings that may or may not be valid. When a crime becomes a widely-broadcast web of information blips, the suspect is forejudged in the court of public opinion; I feel concerned about our nation’s commitment to the concept of innocent until proven guilty in a court of law (how on earth will that be possible?). What irks me most about media coverage of the Newtown, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Tucson, Boston Marathon, Columbine and other killings is the retreat into a kind of contorted deductive reasoning based on imaginative constructions of human intent and purpose—the search for motivation that drives the forensic end of these crimes becomes a news story led by experts who imply they can get to the truth. But can we ever know the truth? Each human being is unique and ultimately unexplainable, and often the way we are best reminded of that fact is through art: fiction, theater, paintings, poetry. On his New Yorker blog, Adam Gopnik notes:

Experts tell us the meaning of what they haven’t seen; poets and novelists tell us the meaning of what they haven’t seen, either, but have somehow managed to fully imagine. Maybe the literature of terrorism, from Conrad to Updike (and let us not forget Tolstoy, fascinated by the Chechens) can now throw a little light on how apparently likable kids become cold-hearted killers. Acts of imagination are different from acts of projection: one kind terrifies; the other clarifies.

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We need clarity.

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I might add that in my day job, I work with young people between the ages of 17 and 24, day in, day out. These young adults experience varying levels of frustration, confusion, numbness, fear, anxiety, excitement, need for risk, need for security, withdrawal, social discomfort, and inner turmoil. I cannot look at the perpetrators of recent civilian massacres without thinking of my students. I do not mean that I am wary or that I think one of my students might snap; what I mean is that I feel compassion for the conflictedness each human being is capable of feeling and that I understand all too well that not all of us are capable of contending with that conflict.

Some of us can accomplish through acts of imagination the confrontation with what terrifies or numbs us. These people include our artists. Those who cannot express or embrace the confrontation are at risk of projecting the inner conflict, fear, or insecurity elsewhere, as Gopnik makes clear.

Can art make us safe? We live in the world: not an inherently safe place. I think if we embrace what art offers us we will not be in retreat from the truths of the human experience but will learn to confront truths, even those that are uncomfortable. Art gives us insight, a step toward understanding. Can art grant us clarity? I think so.

Therefore, Emily Dickinson (305):

The difference between Despair
And Fear—is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck—
And when the Wreck has been—

The Mind is smooth—no Motion—
Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust—
That knows—it cannot see—

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Blame & fear

Amazing, the human brain, consciousness layered over instinct, habits of thought, the ways we feel, rationalize, justify, seek for why. In the wake of tragedies, we tend to react with fear and blaming; it is as if we could only discern who or what to blame, perhaps we could learn how to prevent it. So we “reason.”

But all too often, what we are doing is not using reason. Instead, people tend to blame whoever or whatever best suits their own, already-decided view of the world and use “reason” to justify their feelings, a psychological phenomenon called “confirmation bias” on which Daniel Kahneman has much to say. Cognitive biases inherently interfere with objective analysis, which is sometimes a lovely and rich part of the human experience but which also leads to terrible misuse of analysis. We usually act based on biases rather than on logic (see this page for a long list of biases). So many ways to justify our often-mistaken and uninformed beliefs or responses.

Anthropologist and philosopher René Girard offers insights into the desire to blame–a sociocultural desire, deeply rooted in the way humans behave when in groups and, he believes, one of the foundations for the development of religious rituals, among other things. As we endeavor to “make sense of” impossible events, to “discover why” they occur, we seem naturally to turn to blaming. Apparently, designating a scapegoat consoles us somehow, allows us to believe we might have some control over what is terrible, not unlike sacrificing a calf to propitiate an angry god.

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I lived just outside of Newtown, CT for a few years in the 1980s. I still have friends there and I know the area well. It was a safe town, and it is still a safe town; only now, it is a safe town in which a terrible and statistically-rare occurrence happened. That sounds rather dry and heartless: “a statistically-rare occurrence.” Yet from the logic standpoint–if we are being reasonable–it is simple to discover that by any measure, U.S. schools are the safest place a school-age child can be. Fewer than 2% of deaths and injuries among children ages 5-18 occur on school grounds. I got these numbers from the US Center for Disease Control. Keeping an armed policeman at every U.S. school (as recently proposed by the president of the NRA) might possibly make an incrementally small difference in that tiny number. Might. Possibly. Rationally, would it not make more sense for us to address the 98% and decrease that number? Though I am all in favor of hiring more people to safeguard our cities, the only real value of such a move would be to reduce a mistaken sense of public fear.

Because we are afraid, and fear is keeping us from rational and compassionate behavior. Fear can be useful–it probably helped us survive in the wild, and it continues to serve good purpose occasionally; but human beings ought to recognize the value of fear is limited in a civilized, community-based, theoretically-rational society. Rational, compassionate behavior on the part of our nation would be to remove the lens of public scrutiny from the people of Newtown and allow them to deal with grieving in the privacy of their families and community. We cannot come to terms with private loss, nor ever understand it truly, through network news, tweets, photographs on our internet feeds, or obsessive updates on ongoing police investigations.

Fear also keeps us from finding resources of our own. It blocks us from our inner strengths. The families and friends of the victims and the killer need that inner strength more than they will ever require public notice, no matter how well-intentioned the outpourings are.

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Blame. Whose fault is it? Children and teachers and a confused and angry young man and his mother have died violently, and I’ve been listening to the outcry all week–even though I have tried to limit my exposure to “media sources.” Here are the scapegoats I have identified so far: the mental health system; semi-automatic weapons; violent computer games; the 2nd Amendment; the media; autism; school security; the killer’s father and mother (herself a victim); anti-psychotic drugs and the pharmaceutical industry; divorce; god; U.S. legislation concerning weapons and education and mental health; bullies in schools; the NRA; the victims themselves, for participating in a godless society; poor parenting; narcissism; the Supreme Court; President Obama; the CIA. I’m sure I have missed a few. (Andrew Solomon’s recent piece in the New York Times also touches on our default blame mode; his list coincides pretty closely with mine; see this article.)

Scapegoats serve several purposes. They allow us to say we, ourselves, no matter how guilty we feel, are not at fault. They give us an excuse for disaster, something to punish or something to attempt to change through controls we can think through and develop (“logically”). And in fact some good may eventually come of the changes and the control we exert, but such change is likely to be small and long in arriving. Mostly what scapegoating achieves turns out to be bad for us, however, because what it does well is give us something to fear.

Fear motivates us to read obsessively every so-called update on the killer’s presumed (and, ultimately, unknowable) motives, to argue over the best way to address the complex and intertwined issues that each of us perceives to be the root cause of any particular tragic event. Our fears make us consumers of media, and our information sources respond to our need to know why and our desire to blame. Our fears drive us to purchase guns to protect ourselves even though statistics continually prove that more U.S. citizens are killed accidentally or intentionally by someone they know intimately (including themselves, especially in the case of suicides–which Solomon also addresses in the essay I’ve cited) than by strangers or during acts of robbery, terrorism or massacres. “News,” as we have come to know it, is predicated on reporting things that are dramatic and therefore statistically unlikely. Suppose our information sources kept an accurate hourly update on weapons-related or motor vehicle-related deaths…would we become immune to the numbers? Would we say “That’s not news”? Would we be less avid consumers of such “news sources”? Would it comfort us to know we are more likely to be struck by lightning twice than to die in a terrorist act on U.S. soil or be killed by a deranged gunman in a mall or school?

Can we delve into our inner resources of rationality in order to fight our fears?

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I think not. Fear is not easily swayed by facts. Instinct trumps reason psychologically and cognitively in this case. Fear is so emotional that it requires a deeply spiritual, soul-searching response perhaps–instead of a reasoned one. Perhaps that is why so many of the “great religions” include stories of human encounters with a god, godhead, or cosmic intelligence which humans “fear” (though the term is used to signify awe and recognition of human insignificance rather than the fear of, say, a lunging tiger). In these stories–the Bhagavad Gita and Book of Job among them–a human confronted with the godhead recognizes such fear/awe that he can never afterwards fear anything this world has to offer. In the face of what is beyond all human understanding, there is no reasoning, and no human “feelings” that psychology can explain.

Roosevelt said we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Words well worth recalling in times like these.

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Finally, this:

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

Namaste, Shalom, Peace, Al-Salam. May your find the strength within yourself to make your way compassionately through this world.