We are living in a time of Wendigo…

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.


Where “fear” came from…

Word-nerd alert:

The English word “fear” is very old. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (or, “The Tome,” as I prefer to call it), “fear” was first defined as “a sudden and terrible event” and was first found written in English in 1068. A hundred years later, in 1175, the word meant “the emotion of pain or uneasiness caused by the sense of impending danger, or the prospect of some possible evil” and had become “the general term for all degrees of the emotion.”

It is interesting the shift from the presence of fear (an event) to the prediction of fear (“impending,” “prospect”). In 1068, fear was something that happened which was “sudden and terrible,” but by 1175 fear was a feeling that something could happen that was dangerous or evil.

I dug a little deeper into fear’s etymology (word genealogy) and found that the base of the word is pre-Teutonic and is probably a form of the Aryan root per [“fare” or “there”]: to go through. That’s interesting!

If fear is something we go through, that would include the approach (hasn’t happened) and the passage (it’s happening). To me, this hints at something in our cultural heritage as English speakers (native and learned) that links feeling fear with going through something that is sudden and terrible.

So what difference does knowing fear’s etymology make to…anything?

Well, many linguists, particularly George Lakoff, have pointed out that our language informs (brings to form) our reality; that is, how we experience our lives changes when we change the words with which we define and describe that experience. Psychologists tend to concur and we now have popular memes urging us to practice saying “thank you” to be happier, and paying attention to what we call a person (“girl” or “woman”; “Indian” or “Native American”; “terrorist” or “troubled”; etc.) to see why we behave in particular ways toward them (yes, including what pronouns we use).

As this relates to how we experience fear in various forms, let’s look at another word that is deeply rooted in our experience: intuition. Although “women’s intuition” tends to be debased as fantasy in much of our culture, the root of the word “intuition” (“tuere”) is directly related to the role of real fear – “to guard, to protect.”  The “gut feeling” of intuitive fear is qualitatively different from anxiety, worry, and panic, according to Gavin de Becker in his book The Gift of Fear.

In his book, de Becker emphasized that our ability to explore the links associated with what triggers different “feelings” will define our ability to survive and thrive. Neuroscience in Michael Gershon’s The Second Brain supports the value of intuition, of these “gut feelings,” as more accurately “gut thoughts” in our “second brain.” Gershon shared research that shows that our intestines contain more neurons than our cerebellum; our guts are literally already thinking before we know it. (Brings a whole new perspective to the condition and care of our innards…like when we’re full of s…) Women’s intuition is our deep knowing that a threat is present, even if that knowing has yet to reach our conscious brain.

As I pointed out in “We never have a thought without a felt,” by the time information reaches our consciousness, it has already had to travel through our feeling center. Indeed, the information may have entered our neural network even before that via our gut. In situations where time is of the essence, acting on our gut can literally save us or those we love before we know what we are doing.

So when we feel we are going through something sudden and terrible, we are getting loud signals that we need to guard and protect, that we need to pay attention to what is happening before we our consciousness can apply words and labels to it. Reversing this process is what gets us in trouble. When we think (consciously apply words and labels) to something that might be sudden and terrible, we charge up fear responses that have been programmed or trained into our brains. We then pay attention to what we’ve been told to be afraid of and churn our guts into an acidic mess that garbles any “gut thoughts.”

Even though, as my colleague Brandi Painter put it, “we can’t think our way out of what we felt our way into,” our linguistic (thoughtful study of language) heritage offers clues to breaking the cycles and feedback loops of our American fear factory. It is with an appreciation of irony that I can declare that changing the way we think about fear changes our experience of feeling fear, and that when we think before we feel, we act on a manufactured fantasy rather than what is actually happening.

Word-nerd out.

Here there be monsters…

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.