I’m on the phone with my mother, the day after the Women’s March, two day’s after the Inauguration of Trump. “I was worried about you!” she says, “What if there had been tear gas!”. “I didn’t think there would be, because kids were supposed to be there” I reply, “but I prepared in case there would be tear gas, especially because kids would be there. I took supplies for me and those around me.” I explain calmly. “I just don’t see why you always have to stand up to bullies.” she says to me. “Bullies always win. Standing up to them just makes them hit you more.” Her response blows my mind. It makes me realize just how different, at our very cores, we are. “Mom, you HAVE to stand up to bullies, OTHERWISE they win. If you give in, that is the only time they win. It shows them, hey, bullying works, I’m going to keep doing that.” Her voice starts to crack on the other line, “No, bullies always win. They beat you down, and they win.” I shake my head. “Mom. They can hit us down, they can beat us as individuals and as a group, but they only win when we stop getting back up, asking for more, and fighting back.” I hear her snuffle. “I’m scared.” she says. “Me too. But we can be scared and fight like hell. They’re aren’t mutually exclusive.” “It just seems so easy for you to say.” she sighs,“You have just always seemed fearless I guess, and I never know how to connect with you, because I always feel terrified. Always.” I didn’t know what to say, and she had to get off the phone to go to work, so we said our goodbyes.
One of my favorite books is “Dune” by Frank Herbert. I remember watching the film version too, with my brother and my dad when I was a kid. There are so many great things about the book, but one thing that always stuck with me was the Gom Jabar, a test to see if someone is a person or an animal by how well they control their fear. This really resonated with me when I was young. Probably because I had a lot of fears, both real and imaginary, rational and irrational. The Gom Jabar was Frank Herbert’s way of talking about how we learn to still be rational in the face of overwhelming fear.
This is what I thought of talking to my mom. It made me sad for her she never developed this ability.
At some point in our lives, we learn to understand the language of our hearts. We learn that the soaring, jumping feeling in our chest means love or happy or pride, that we’re filled with love, that we are feeling compassion for and connection with, those around us. We learn that sticky, sick, sinking feeling that just won’t leave is fear or guilt or sadness, that something is wrong, whether we did it, or we see it happening, and we know that for the feeling to stop, we need those circumstances to be fixed. Like all things in life, people learn at different rates. Some people learn this quickly, and are the kind and gentle preschoolers who tend to the other children around them so sweetly, and try so hard to make up for the mistakes their peers are still learning from. These kids are slated for a life of the world on their shoulders. Others, don’t pick it up as fast, and come into that emotional maturity in their teenage years or early adulthood. Still others, never seem to learn these lessons. This could mean they won’t be able to empathize. Or that they can’t be rational and emotional at the same time.
In Dune, when talking about the ritual of the Gom Jabar, Frank Herbert wrote The Litany Against Fear, which says: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
I envision fear as a river. Sometimes we float above it, sometimes we swim through it, sometimes it is channeled swiftly around us, sometimes it widens out to a calmer pace. Sometimes it is deep, sometimes shallow. There are always things to fear, and the river is always with us. What we want to avoid doing though, is building up dams on that fear, pooling it up, letting it stagnate. Fear exists, it flows through us, it flows through life. But we don’t want to prevent it from continuing on it’s way. Because that is what fear is supposed to do. It comes, it goes. On the river of fear we experience new things that scare us, we grow accustomed to them, we no longer fear them, and they go past. We learn and grow. But if we dam it up, we refuse to learn or grow, and we just soak and soak in fear as more and more fear flows in, until our lives are filled with nothing but fear. Then, when the next hard time comes, the next winter of our lives, the fear freezes us solid until we can’t even move from all the fear we have. The litany against fear, starts out: “fear is the mind killer”, and this is what it means. Dwelling, soaking, marinating, becoming stuck and frozen in fear. It kills our minds. It prevents us from thinking. It strangles our souls. It keeps us from reaching out and connecting with each other. The river, dammed up, swells into a lake, a giant lake until it may as well be a sea of fear that we float on, alone, apart from everyone else, who is also struggling.
To me, fear does not mean being powerless. Lately, I too have been waking up with a knot in my stomach many mornings wondering if I’ll have healthcare, if I’ll be punished for speaking out, if my grandma will have social security still, if people who look like my family will be targeted because of how they look, if I will be targeted because of I am attracted to women as well as men or because I spend time with friends and coworkers from different backgrounds. But yesterday, because of those fears, in spite of those fears, overcoming those fears, myself and millions of others woke up and lent our voices to the cause and to each other.
When you’re feeling afraid, remember that you aren’t alone, figuratively and literally. When you are feeling down, remember yesterday that five million humans came out, around the world on every continent, for the largest protest in history to say, we aren’t going backwards, only forwards. They came out to tell each other we have each others backs, in our real life struggles. To say we support women, we support people of color, we support the disabled, we support the LGBTQIA community, we support workers, we support children, we are men and allies and we are not going to wait quietly for rights to be stripped from our neighbors.
Together we stood in the strong current of our many fears, with our arms linked, holding each other and we were not washed away.
When you feel sad and alone, remember that five million people marched with you, and they’ve got your back. When you feel alone, remember scientists on an isolated outpost in Antarctica marched, so that every corner of the world could show solidarity, so that the light of human decency would shine from every place, and there would be no escaping it. When you feel alone remember that so many people are with you that in cities around the world, marches became rallies as more people arrived to show support than could physically move in the streets. When you feel alone, remember that at the protest I was in, in downtown Seattle, we were joined by two bald eagles, who stayed and circled for a long time. It felt like America was with us. It felt like the Earth was showing solidarity. When you feel alone remember that everything good is with us, and that the bad will fail.
It’s easy to feel like we’ve lost and our country has lost it’s way, that or ideals are destroyed, and everything is hopeless. I feel it too sometimes. But let me share with you some hope for the future. On my way back from the March, I ran into two of my former preschool students, in attendance at the March with their families. They both stopped to tell me about how they had gone on a walk to tell a bad man “no thank you!” and it was hard, and one of them had even stopped to cry on the sidewalk at one point because it was a very long walk. But when her parents asked if she wanted to go home, she got up and continued on, because she wanted to finish “telling the bad people to be nice to their friends, and to let people make their own choices”.
The other girl was there with her sister and her dad after her parents had recently divorced. Her dad told me that she would hear Trump on the radio and get upset by the “mean words he says” and she heard that people were going to “go walk in the street with signs about choices he can make instead” and she asked to go. He asked his ex-wife if he could take his daughters to the March to show them what a good man is like.
After I said goodbye to them I was walking home, and I passed by a restaurant near my home where a young male barista was on his break outside. “Hey” he said, “Were you at the March?” I stopped. “Yeah. It was pretty cool.” I said. He looks down. “I really wanted to go, but I had to work. But I was bummed you know, because it’s like, I’m a white cis dude, and I recognize all the privilege I have, but I care about what’s going to happen to everyone else who doesn’t have as much privilege as I do.” I nodded. “We felt you there man. You gotta make ends meet. There will be other chances for you to show that you care about people, because you care about people, you know?” He thought about it. “Yeah. Like, I do care, and so I have to actually be that way. Yeah. Thanks!” We threw each other peace signs and I walked away.
That is our futures. People who recognize when they have more than others, and want to find a way to reach out and help. Children who understand empathy and grow up working to make sure everyone is equal. Things will be hard for a while, but in the end, we’ll be better. Our democracy is at Fitness Bootcamp. We are kicking it into high gear together. We will not go back to the way things were, we will not see our friends and neighbors stripped of everything good. The only other choice is to go forward. It’s hard. But it’s necessary.
One last thought: we need leaders and friends and people in our lives who empower us to tackle those rivers of fear in our lives. We will never have a leader who takes away the river. That just isn’t the nature of being human, of being alive. To live and grow and learn, means being exposed to new and uncomfortable things sometimes, and that means fear. But a bad leader will prey on our fear, dam it up, to drown us in it, then send harsh conditions to freeze us in place. They will promise to remove the river, they will tell us it is gone as the water swirls around our necks. Fear makes us easier to control. When we buy into lies and propaganda, we are buying a one way ticket to a big, isolated lake of fear, cut off from those who would love and support us. And that is just what a bad leader, wants.
Besides being the tactic of a bad leader, that type of isolationism is also a classic abuse tactic. Don’t give in to propaganda and abuse. Hold on strong to those connections, of other people fighting through the fear. Let them lend you their tools and strength, and when you are able, you can lend them yours. If you’ve fallen prey to fear, don’t believe the illusion that you are alone in that boat. Know that just out of sight in the mental fog is five million people waiting for you to join arms with them, against the current.
We need to get out there for all those boats. Women who feel alone and scared, Minority groups who feel alone and scared, but also, eventually when we’re strong enough, the loneliest boats of all, way out in the deepest part of fear lake, in the thickest mental fog. The supporters of the administration, who don’t realize themselves and their families are also being harmed and abused. The elderly who have only been consuming a media diet based mostly of scare-tactics and lies for at least a decade now. As we come together, we have more strength and more tools to reach those folks too, and to tear down the fear dam and get back to our regular lives.
If you ever feel lost out in that deep dark water of fear, just remember the shark. Sharks must keep moving, always, to stay alive. If they stop moving, even to sleep, they die. It these troubled times, we must be sharks. Never stop moving. Never stop working. Never stop going forward.
Together. Not alone