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.


Even if your voice shakes…

This blog may get a little shaky. I’m a well-trained academic and woman, which means that my voice has counted for very little as I’ve stayed in the lines. Forays outside the lines (of inquiry, comfort, marketability, expectations, etc.) have been exhausting and painful. Still, I persist and now I’m venturing into the territory of publicly personal that is nothing like the Facebook-esque reality show. I’m also going to attempt to embody experience via digital means, without implants or jacks. Living with intentional inquiry and fear means – eventually, even if I really really don’t like it – speaking up and out.

I’m an optimist, as you may have guessed from my stance on fear. It’s a necessary and mostly good thing. I’m also a realist and listener. I listen to stories because they are what is real, regardless of any facts. Stories are our experiences, our identities, and our values – and they are FULL of emotions. Facts are dry and distant – and will never drive a decision. Doubt this? Just look at the U.S. presidency. This didn’t start in 2016; stories slathered in fear and vengeance have imposed our most influential presidents on the world, to our collective detriment. In my lifetime (a little over half a century), the socially progressive movements in the U.S. of the 60s and 70s have all fallen under the juggernaut of militarism in the 80s and 00s (the 90s seemed somewhat “restful” as we watched, self-satisfied and vindicated, the fallout of the Berlin Wall). The greatest man to hold the presidency in my lifetime only served one term, losing by a landslide because he sought peaceful resolution to the quagmire his predecessors had made in the Middle East which had put American lives on the, very public, line.

All of this while overall violence was declining worldwide, livelihoods were improving, and disease was being routed from entrenched positions. Technology has brought us greater connectivity, more access to education, and means to end massive suffering. These are the facts, but they aren’t the stories most of us hear.

In schools we are taught about war and conquest, about the success of the current system and our place in it; we are not taught about unions, let alone why we ever had them. We don’t learn about the Native American holocaust or how the U.S. military attacked – with bombs! – American citizens in America desperate for better working and living conditions. I wasn’t even required to read the Constitution; I chose to read it after achieving two college degrees beyond high school. Public schools were designed as factories to produce workers to serve the U.S. economy; all the tinkering to prop up “liberal education” and creativity will not change this. These are facts without stories, or stories that have been shouted down by the engines of consumerism.

Consumers. In the U.S., we consume vastly more than we produce – it’s the American Way. I read stories about working lives a century ago and am impressed by how much has not changed, it’s just gotten very quiet. Instead of burning sweatshops with locked doors and windows, we now have workers leaping from office buildings without any fire. Workers no longer have to be locked in to squeeze out every drop of work, we are now tethered via devices that we are expected to attend 24/7. Balancing the demands of work and life still eludes us, and working conditions are still hazardous – just less photogenic.

Our stories instruct us on the right and proper way to be successful, beautiful, admired (maybe loved), and free: shop. Shop more, buy bigger. With just a few clicks, we instigate a vast serious of events that results in our desired thing appearing almost instantaneously on our desktop or doorstep. Everything you are or have is wrong or not enough; you need to buy more to fix yourself. Boredom is to be avoided at all costs, and only rest when exhausted. We have become black holes of need, while the engine keeps burning through our ability to live.

What if we stopped? What if we changed our collective story?

The United States of America was founded on good ideals that got lost – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. After 250 years, Americans saw their “great experiment” failing to produce the desired results. We were enslaved to corporations that had more rights than human beings, and no responsibilities. We had to pay more and more for clean water, food free of poison, and devices to clean and cool air that had become dangerous. We were lonely, angry, sad, and terrified most of the time. As our government became a tragic farce, we collectively said, “Fuck this shit.” At the tipping point of the early 21st Century, Americans stopped shopping. We stopped pursuing profit, freeing ourselves to live abundantly. Americans finally embraced the value of “enough,” and we are richer for it. Slowly, then suddenly we could then produce what the nation’s founders imperfectly imagined: off the scale happiness.

How does that feel?

Let’s shake things up.

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.