We’ve been taught that fear is the enemy, “the mind-killer,” to be avoided or obliterated. Fear is a monster to be defeated so that we may be free, happy, and prosperous. Monsters – they’re a problem, an old problem. The problem of monsters is as old and complicated as any human story.
Monsters are grossly out of proportion, ugly, smelly, contorted and distorted from anything “natural” we have ever met. They lurk, hide, loom, and jump out unexpectedly. Some appear enticing at first, only to reveal themselves as utterly destructive and, well, wrong. We’re afraid of monsters and we all know what monsters are, even though they aren’t “real”; or too real. Most monster stories are accounts of theft – not just of princesses or gold, but of identity and connection.
The Minotaur was a prince with a birth defect who was banished by his own father to the labyrinth so the father wouldn’t have to be constantly reminded of his transgression. The monstrous son, a tiny boy, was left in the dark – alone.
Medusa was a goddess of those other people, those non-Greeks who were dark and had strange hair. She listened to snakes – which are always bad – who shared direct communication from Mother Earth, in which they made their homes. She was kidnapped by the Greeks and banished with her sisters to an island, severing her connection to her land/people.
Dr. Frankenstein created a monster by stealing life from death.
My friend, Kate, shared the insight that when you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you create a monster; this resonated deeply as I thought about what has happened to fear. Before all the heroism there was betrayal, pain, abuse, abandonment. It was only then that the monsters emerge and must then be destroyed after harrowing adventures and struggles. Other stories tell of similar adventures and struggles that ultimately reveal the monster to be a sympathetic, misunderstood creature or person in pain.
The witch alone in the woods accused of eating children is a midwife willing to defy church teachings to save women in childbirth.
The hunchback seen as cursed by God for his grotesque, cursed appearance is the whipping boy and scapegoat for the sadistic, revered community leader.
The old man who stays in his house and scares all the neighborhood children with his gruff warnings to keep away lost his entire family to violence and is haunted by those images and voices.
These latter stories show us that something or someone can be a monster not because that is what they are, but because of what happened to them; that they emerged because of fundamental, sacred violation. In stories, these monsters are redeemed rather than destroyed…sometimes.
The problem of fear in our culture is related to the problem of monsters. We have institutions that depend on our dependence, which create more fear (reducing our freedom) in an attempt to manage fear (increasing freedom?). In this way, we have been robbed of our most trusted ally, that which made it possible for our ancestors to survive everything that befell them. Once taken from us, the concept of fear has become other than an emotion, it has become a monster. It is a monster that keeps us isolated, venerating our individualism as an unassailable American virtue.
Studies of fear tend toward attempts to count and control experiences of fear that have become obviously detrimental to our efforts to be happy and healthy as individuals and in groups. Spiritual advisors, politicians, educators, parents, “experts,” and various counselors have attempted to reduce the experience of fear to quick fixes and techniques for severe curtailment and/or elimination of fear – efforts to destroy the monster. These efforts are often in response to perceived “problems” with fear, just feeling afraid is seen as weakness. However, most often these problems are the result of the artificial, even pathological exaggeration of our basic emotion into a weapon of control by individuals and organizations which are benefited by our distraction from their efforts to gain even more power and money, with no consideration of anyone’s well-being. The theft must be reconciled and we deserve a chance to reveal the friend within the monster.
Within the maelstrom of super-sized and manufactured fear, we have lost our ability to clearly discern what is actually scary – what we actually need to pay attention to in any given moment. In our fear of Muslims and immigrants, we don’t hear the climate emergency sirens. In our fear of dark skin, we don’t see how our humanity is being diminished. In our fear of missing out (FOMO), we miss sublime experiences of deep connection that takes time. There are many things and people that are truly scary, that we need to pay attention to so we can make choices that keep us and our loved ones safe and, ultimately, alive.