Fear – Where Your Eyes Don’t Go
Image from “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, Disney Pictures
And does a parody of each unconscious thing you do
When you turn around to look it’s gone behind you
On its face it’s wearing your confused expression
Where your eyes don’t go” – Where Your Eyes Don’t Go, They Might Be Giants.
Humans have always feared the unknown. Whether it be the contemplation of what happens after we die, or whether it’s just a dark room that may contain unknown entities, fear is a strange and powerful motivator. For humans on a day to day basis, fear helps us to avoid injurious or potentially hazardous situations, but for some, fear is a tool used to motivate others to carry out actions for them, a means to an end. What’s interesting about fear is that we often invent fears, even when there’s no apparent danger present.
The example of a darkened room is one example of this. We use our senses to navigate around the world, so when these senses are dulled or switched off, a certain sense of helplessness arises. What could be just a dark room, without the aid of sight, could contain an evil monster waiting to devours you whole. Or worse, there may be no floor, and you could go plummeting to your demise below. There could be spiders or other creepy-crawlies, or a person lurking in the dark waiting to bonk you on the head and steal your wallet. Or there could be all of the above, and one might find themselves dead at the bottom of a monster’s stomach, wallet-less and covered in spiders!
Of course, most of this is unlikely. Chances are a darkened room is just a darkened room, but we dare not enter that room unless we absolutely have to. With the aid of a torch or flashlight, the room suddenly shows itself for what it is; a room. If there were something in the room which could bring about a person’s demise, at least when light is shone on it, one can deal with the situation as the situation requires. But without the light, it’s the not knowing, the unknown possible dangers that are much more powerful than the real dangers when they present themselves.
That said, of course, fear is a great preserver of well-being. Having climbed a few cliff faces in my time, I know what real fear feels like too, clinging to a thin piece of rock hundreds of metres above the ground where falling would mean my certain demise. The fear felt here is real and productive. It helps me to stay focused on the job at hand, and be mindful of what I am doing. What is interesting is not the fear we feel when a real life situation is potentially perilous, but the “fake fear” we feel in a situation where real dangers are unknown.
In Australia our current political parties are constantly harping on about the threat of “boat people”, of people fleeing their home countries hell-bent on making it all the way here to set up a new life. The threat is a useful tool for politicians to use the xenophobic fear of the outsider to take focus away from more poignant issues such as the education, economy and health of the citizenry, and although the intention of such decoy tactics is completely transparent, the fear felt by many Australians is very real. It’s a fear of change, a fear of Australia somehow becoming “Islamified”, the fear of people with other languages, practices and cultures. It’s a fear of the unknown, and the human mind can conjure up all kinds of evils from within the realm of the unknown. Truth be known, of course, that the reality of the situation is far less threatening than the politicians would like to make out. The numbers of new arrivals by boat are so very low, and the people coming here are far more fearful of their situations in their homelands, or they would not be spurred into undertaking the terrible and dangerous journey across the ocean to get here.
Fear, when placed in the hands of the powerful, is used as a way to create common ground and divisions among people. Roosevelt, in his inaugural speech in 1933 used the example of fear to help strengthen the camaraderie among the American people in a time when the Great Depression was at its peak. History shows us that it was a time when a united stand was important, with the Second World War knocking at the world’s door. But Roosevelt showed with these 10 words was that fear begets fear, and that fear itself is something to be afraid of.
The ultimate fear of the unknown is that of death. What happens in those final moments, when the lights go out in our consciousness, the signals and responses from within our brain cease, and the only thing we have ever known, our lives, comes to an end? Beyond death lies the darkest room imaginable. There is nothing in this room, and in fact the room itself doesn’t exist as far as we can tell, but the fear of an ultimate ending conjures up all kinds of strange and wonderful fantasies of an “afterlife”. This afterlife has been variously portrayed as the ultimate paradise, the ultimate torture, or even much like our earthly and well known lives have been. All versions of the afterlife, however, have one thing in common; they are a dark room we cannot shed light upon, and all are based on a fanciful notion that the end of life is not the end of human existence. It is impossible to shed light on what happens after death except as an outside observer; nobody has every come back from death to tell us what happened, not really anyhow. Near death experiences are just that; “near” death. They are not actual death, because death is final, no matter how we look at it.
The fear of the unknown after death is where religions hold their power. They claim to know what happens, and they claim with absolute certainty to know what it takes in our corporeal life to get to this promised afterlife. The fear we feel from beyond the veil of the unknown in death is placated by the promises of religions, telling us not to worry, that there is more to come after this journey, and this part lasts forever. This is a very useful way to calm someone who is in the throes of dying, and also useful to give peace to the mind of someone watching a loved-one die. If death is not final, it is not to be feared. Without this fear of death, people can live a life where their attentions are turned toward making their life on earth happier.
Of course, there is a flip-side to the lack of fear of death. If someone does not fear death, and are promised a better life after death than the one they are currently living, then they can be utilised as machines of war, as we see with suicide bombers in the middle-east and Pakistan. The promise of paradise, where all the wants and desires denied to them in the harsh realities of their lives will be fulfilled, motivates people to take their own lives, and the lives of as many infidels as possible. The fear of death in this situation could be seen as a deterrent from undertaking such courses of action as willfully blowing yourself up.
From the monster under your bed, to the fear of refugees, to the promise of life after death, fear is our great motivator. Without fear we stumble blindly into the darkened room and meet whatever may lay within. With fear we take care to preserve our lives. Self preservation and the desire to live a happy and fulfilling life are all bracketed by the fear of the unknown. Fear is powerful. Fear keeps us moving forward. Fear is our friend and our enemy.
Fear, from ignorance and denial, from dogma and unfounded political desires can all be placated with the right amount of investigation, with facts, and with empathy. This is why, when presented with a situation, a darkened room of the unknown, we must endeavour to shed light on the facts of any situation with the desire to see what really lays within.