dailybell: Got Fear?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Got Fear?

I am beginning to believe that we know everything, that all history, including the history of each family, is part of us, such that, when we hear any secret revealed, a secret about a grandfather, or an uncle, or a secret about the battle of Dresden in 1945, our lives are suddenly made clearer to us, as the unnatural heaviness of unspoken truth is dispersed. For perhaps we are like stones: our own history and the history of the world embedded in us, we hold a sorrow deep within and cannot weep until that history is sung.
- Susan Griffin. Denial from “A Chorus of Stones”.

There are three interrelated components to my thoughts about fear or at least the reluctance on the part of the general population to engage with strangers in public. These three elements are in addition to the widespread and vague suspicion that people have when confronted with unfamiliar or unusual behavior or activity in public. What does this person want? Is this a performance? Is this person soliciting for money, religion, political and other causes? Does this person merely need information about time, directions, etc? I am not dismissing these thoughts as insignificant, but I would like to set them aside for a moment to think about what might be underlying factors to this type of suspicion in the first place.

What the three parts may have in common is some relationship to memory: history with a capital “H” as it is forgotten or misrepresented; family history denied and the memory of personal behavior as it is projected into expectation about the behavior of others.

I’ll jump right into a major source of cultural shame. We are a nation founded on genocide and fed by slavery. These acts provide the basis for the narratives we teach our children in school. These narratives are more like the “based on a true story” or “inspired by real events” versions of real events that we see on television and in movies than factual and accurate accounting of “what happened”. Of course, the privilege to “tell what happened” is one of the spoils of victory and the narrative is entirely at the discretion of those in charge. Depending on the stories they/we want to tell, writers decide what to emphasize, what to include or exclude. We don’t teach our children about genocide. We teach them about “the Pilgrims” having Thanksgiving dinners with “the Indians”. We teach them to believe that the land didn’t belong to anyone. We don’t say that this is because we believed the inhabitants were less than human. We don’t say that because we believed they were inferior to us, the inhabitants were conveniently invisible and without rights.

By not openly and honestly talking about the underlying assumptions and imperatives for our behavior (economic and political as well as ethical) we compound our initial guilt with deception and silence. We fabricate a partial cover-up, a lie, which becomes an accepted historical narrative. With each repetition, this deception becomes more accepted and eventually replaces the truth.
We forget that we are history. We have kept the left hand from knowing the right. …We are not used to associating our private lives with public events. Yet the histories of families cannot be separated from the histories of nations. To divide them is part of our denial

In her essay Denial from “A Chorus of Stones”, Susan Griffin speaks of the “habit of denial”. She writes about a particular type of narrative that is passed from generation to generation. It is a story that is only partially told if it is told at all. She talks about what is transmitted by a retelling based on omission. For instance, someone from an earlier generation in a family does something that everyone at the time regards as transgressive and shameful. It is so awful that no one speaks about it directly. However, the shame associated with the person and with the act they committed is always present. After a while, perhaps the initial incident is no longer remembered or spoken of, but the obligation to know and feel the shame associated with the transgression has been internalized by subsequent generations. It is this internalization of the unnamed shame (or guilt, or etc.) that gives it weight and substance. And as long as the source of transgression remains unknown, even unsuspected, we inherit only the warnings and admonitions and not the reasons. Without understanding what happened or why, we can only hold onto the dread, the shame, and the unease. These can become our filters and affect the way we see and behave towards others.

The Golden Rule advises us to treat others, as we would like to be treated ourselves. A slightly different way to think about this is to expect others to treat us as we treat them. As a nation, it makes sense that such atrocities as genocide and the enslavement of human beings would plant the seeds of fear into the national consciousness. If we as a nation act that way, then of course we can expect others to do the same. On a more personal level, if we habitually deceive people, we might believe that most everyone else behaves the way we do. Based on that assumption, we would not be inclined to trust other people. Liars expect to be lied to. The opposite may also be true.

In fact, neither the way we behave or expect others to behave may have anything to do with what actually happens. But our expectations do influence the way we behave toward others. One of the basic points of the Buddhist teachings on Emptiness is that there is nothing inherent in or about reality. Everything depends on everything else for it’s significance. Said another way- nothing exists or means anything independently of anything else. In his book “The Diamond Cutter”, Geshe Michael Roach uses his experience in the diamond business to illuminate teachings on Wisdom that he studied while training as a Buddhist monk. At one point he discusses how his fellow workers generally regard a particular coworker as irritating and annoying. Roach speculates, however that this same person may have been well loved and regarded by his family and friends. A simple example of the relativity of perspective. He then goes on to say:
1) This person has no quality, within him, of being irritating or nice. He himself, from his own side, is ‘blank’ or ‘neutral’ or ‘empty’
2) The reason that we personally experience this person as being irritating must be coming from somewhere else
Of course, since that “somewhere else” is ourselves, we could think about our fear and suspicion of others in this way as well. Whatever the cause, perhaps our shared or personal histories, our stories and memories, the reluctance to engage lies within us. That’s not to say that people do not behave in ways that can harm us or that we should be stupid about our personal safety. But perhaps we can withhold judgment for a moment or look more closely or ask questions when we encounter something we don’t understand. I would love it if people would ask me what I was doing, or stop and say hello or even acknowledge my presence and activity.

1 comment:

Sherri ~ daintytime said...

Great post Brenda. Thanks. I recognized that sense of shame in me when I began working with the Mantra Trailer in public spaces. I felt a keen spike of shame in the rejections I received when I approached people on the street. But after awhile I stopped taking the rejection personally and the mirrored shame fell away completely. I didn't reflect it back and I didn't absorb it.