Photograph by Josh Taylor, Jr. Used with permission
I just finished another remarkable book by Mary Doria Russell: DREAMERS OF THE DAY. It is a fictionalized history of The Cairo Conference of 1921 including the governing structures of the Middle East which were fabricated subsequent to the First World War. The author’s narration is a fictional observer to these events. At the end of her life, the narrator has three recommendations for all:
“Read to children, vote and never buy anything from a man selling fear.”
My first thought was Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. The fourth: Freedom from Fear. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself…” This is the iconic American statement: “…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
FDR spoke these words before I was born; they sustained us throughout WWII , but I was well into my adulthood before I realized how I had been reared in a culture which was buying “things from a man selling fear.” My family was remarkable for love, kindness, charity, justice and benevolence. But my mother, I think without inspection, had bought into fear long before I arrived and she sold it to me repeatedly. There were infectious diseases and catastrophic hazards everywhere, not the least of these being a judgmental God. It took me years before I reflected on the first childhood prayer I was taught to say every night:
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray, The Lord, my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray The Lord, my soul to take.”
Was it likely that I was going to die if I went to sleep? What would happen if I should die before I wake? How many little innocent children are put to bed fearing that they could die before morning and the The Lord might not take their soul? This is a terrible idea to plant in a child’s mind. It was probably not until the time I unraveled the Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny myths before I was confident that I would wake up in the morning. Then there was our Church. Now our Church was relatively free of “fire and brimstone” threatening sermons, but they did tell us there was a Devil and a Hell. They also gave many lessons informing us that a sin of omission was a bad as a sin of commission. Somehow, I matured out of fearing of a literal afterlife of punishment, but I may never have stopped agonizing over the sins of omission: “failing to do my best”. Later in life, I slowly transitioned, finding that achievement, like beauty, is its own reward. Importantly, I wish that our Church would leap over fear and make its greatest lesson: to be giving and forgiving. I discovered in my middle years, that a reason that it is better to give than receive, is that when one has given intangibles to another person (life, love, comfort, empathy and beauty), it is actually the most rewarding experience that exist. One does not have to wait until the afterlife to obtain these rewards!
Today, far too much of our lives (and most of our politics) continues to be buying “things from a man selling fear”.