True to my preferences, my musings on fear thus far have been rather academic and practical. I like being an academic that gets things done; this realm holds activities I enjoy and is bounded in a way that I feel capable…and safe. In that way, I have been working toward this post – in this space safe enough for fear.
Wendigo spirit is terrifying…and it’s here. I just read yet another story of a community coming apart because of perceived threat from (a) poor people, or (b) brown immigrants. Of course the social and mass media do not identify them as such; they call their perceived enemies drug addicts, job-stealers, illegal, homeless, dangerous, nuisance, alcoholics, lazy, and – ultimately – not like us. And I’ve heard other stories that set the mega-rich as the enemy (and I have perpetuated these stories) calling this perceived enemy greedy, inhuman, heartless, dangerous, cruel, stupid, and – ultimately – not like us. These stories break my heart because I can see the suffering that the storytellers (including me) are breathing everyday…and I want to do something about it. We are all connected and we are all suffering – particularly those who actively drive division. We are lonely, afraid, and sure that other humans are the problem.
It’s all a lie.
I recently had a conversation with Jonathan Tomhave and Jeanette Bushnell of NDNPlayers. They are also academics and the occasion of our meeting was a project with Ion Collaborators here in Seattle around creative approaches to community pains and, specifically, belonging. Jonathan and Jeanette, along with their colleague Tyler Prather, created a game to teach the Coast Salish economic system called “potlatch” to children. The game is simple, yet when adults play, it becomes very difficult for those who are devoted to competition and our usual economics of “-isms.” In our conversation, Jonathan noted that this game, and the hope behind it, are in response to “living in a time of Wendigo.” His words reverberated through my DNA composed of colonizers and community matriarchs.
Humans have not always lived in times of Wendigo; we would have died out millennia ago. Wendigo is an invasive species that ebbs and swells with attention and neglect. When we neglect the vibrant connections with our environment and each other that make life worth bothering with, Wendigo flourishes. When we attend connection and compassion with those that are immediately present, Wendigo withers.
Back in the 1990’s, when the Internet and social media were still mostly the realm of maligned nerds, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” produced an episode of a demon uploading to Internet. The behavior of the people coming under its influence predicted trolls, incels, Internet bullying, and insatiable greed. “Moloch” was a dramatized version of Wendigo; a warning from the center of the “Jossverse” that would later implode when that creator’s Wendigo behavior was finally exposed.
Wendigo emerges when humans resort to cannibalism to survive – and that is what we are are doing through divisive, isolating behavior that turns people into objects to be consumed. In a scarcity mindset, there is not enough to go around – and this is the lie of Wendigo. There is more than enough of everything for everyone on this planet; our suffering is the result of objectification, hoarding, and isolation. The noise of “those people are out to get us” and “I need more” is drowning out our alert system to what we need to actually be afraid of – treating people as the problem and not the solution. Our greatest fear of an actual encounter with “other” is alerting us that that is exactly what we need to do. The stories of people engaging with people who are not like themselves to learn and help are what heals my heart and keeps me fed.
And we academics are guilty of overthinking every single indicator so that our fear-ally is silenced. We have the platforms and resources to collect and share evidence that human beings – particularly healthy relationships between all sorts of human beings – is what we need to survive and thrive. Jonathan and Jeanette have used their knowledge and passion to offer help through play, and have honored our fear of “politics” or abandonment by moving right into those realms to starve Wendigo, not each other. We need all of us, not just the ones that are comfortable or familiar. We know better; now we must do better.
We are better together and – by the way – belonging is a verb.