An outbreak of fear is degrading our humanity. A particular weakness in our psyche—a “bug” in our unconscious mind—causes fear to feed upon itself, making the current pandemic of fear especially virulent.
Terrorism triggers fearfulness, but it’s not the cause of it. The cause or the source of our fear lies within us. Some of our fear derives from a genuine fight-or-flight instinct, yet we also have an unconscious resonance with fear. While it’s seemingly counter-intuitive to say so, we actually “get off” on our fear.
Fear creates within us a certain excitement, thrill, tumult, and buzz that we find alluring and compelling. Fear can become an emotional addiction in the sense that we don’t know how to live without it and in the sense that we feel more fully alive when possessed by it. On the surface, though, we’re unaware of how much we find fear to be enchanting and exhilarating.
Fear is a powerful elixir that counteracts the stupor, dullness, and passivity that come from living in the clutch of close-mindedness. People can find intense pleasure in their fearfulness and, in fact, often pay good money to be frightened. We do it at theme parks on roller-coaster rides and haunted house visits. By the millions, we read fiction thrillers, mysteries, and horror stories, along with nonfiction detective and crime stories. These genres and themes are often the stuff of blockbuster movies. Many productions seem increasingly fear-inspiring with their graphic portrayals of ghouls, vampires, and armies of zombies.
Fear is commercialized by certain broadcasters who are willing to cater to the base elements of our humanity. Dressed up as political commentary, fear-inspired discourse finds wide audiences of neurotic and psychologically naïve individuals. Fear can also be easily trumped up by pandering politicians who find blocs of supporters among the most fearful and neurotic members of the public.
We are likely to react unwisely, even self-destructively, if we don’t acknowledge and take responsibility for our hidden temptation to remain entangled emotionally in the fervor of fear. “In politics,” as the poet Coleridge noted, “what begins in fear usually ends in folly.”
Certainly, terrorism is a frightening danger. To some degree, though, our fear of it is irrational. In the United States, we’re a hundred times more likely to get killed in a car accident than by a terrorist. Nonetheless, we’re prepared to “get off” on fear whether it’s rational or irrational. Many people are heedless of the distinction because they’re so determined to make their fear seem real in their own minds. Neurotic fear, which arises from inner conflict, is projected into the environment, and the neurotic becomes convinced that his own fear is validated by “reality” fears he “sees” in the world around him. As a result, he becomes more afraid than necessary over rational fear, while irrational fear makes him fearful for nothing.
This aspect of human nature is practically universal. For instance, when people at the movies identify with the crooks and robbers rather than with the police, they’re identifying unconsciously with the fearful, overwhelming, and precarious predicament in which the villains have placed themselves.
Fear easily becomes a personal vexation and a social contagion because of how it is libidinized. Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and most classical psychoanalysts regarded libido (from which the word libidinization derives) as psychic energy that flavors our emotional and physical experiences from early childhood on. We are capable of libidinizing a wide range of experiences. Sexual masochists, for instance, libidinize experiences that would normally be associated with pain, humiliation, and shame. Even their sadistic abusers get most of their gratification by identifying with the “pleasures” of the masochist. The phenomenal worldwide popularity of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, which artfully chronicled the “pleasures” of being dominated and abused, reveals the extent to which humans are capable of finding pleasure in displeasure.
Fear is normally an experience of displeasure. But when libidinized, it becomes an enchanting addiction, an intoxicating elixir that especially influences people who feel trapped in humdrum lives. To defend against or cover up this addictive, masochistic relationship to fear, people react with mindless jitters, condemning “aliens” among them, curtailing their own freedoms, supporting political demagogues, or engaging in forms of self-defeating weapons purchases or aggressive military excursions. Fear is libidinized to feel like glory and intense camaraderie when young men go off to war. It’s libidinized on Halloween as a candy-coated celebration of the spooky side of life.
The more inwardly contaminated the individual is by fear, the more likely he or she is to react foolishly. On a personal level, paranoia, phobias, hypochondria, panic-attacks, and anxiety disorders are widespread mental-health problems related to the powerful influence of inner fear and to the difficulty we have in dispelling it.
We’re very resistant to seeing ourselves objectively at this deeper level. In our psyche, we subscribe to psychological defenses that make claims along these lines: “I’m not unconsciously resonating with the feeling of being fearful, defeated, overwhelmed, or rendered helpless. I’m not indulging in inner fear. Look at how determined I am to destroy anyone who might want to instill fear in me.” If at this point the individual feels any guilt, he pins it on his reactive emotionally-charged aggression rather than (where it belongs) on his underlying embrace of fear.
Fear can also be employed directly as a defense. The more neurotic the individual, the more passive he’s likely to be on an inner level and the greater his psychological deposits of inner fear. Much of this fear lingers and remains unresolved from the experience of helplessness in early childhood. The neurotic individual is always striving to rationalize the fear. One flawed rationalization, serving as a defense, becomes, “I’m right to be very much afraid of the people who threaten me. My fear proves I don’t secretly want to indulge in feelings of being overwhelmed and defeated.” To maintain this defense, the fear often has to be felt more intensely.
In the United States, this type of defense is employed by fearful individuals who become fixated on their guns. The defense reads, “I certainly am afraid of the government and the authorities who might take away my rights. My guns and my willingness to use them prove that I’m not secretly entertaining feelings of helplessness or the prospect of being disempowered by the government or vanquished by criminals.”
We tend to act out what we fear the most. People embrace guns out of fear of being victimized, yet unregulated gun ownership likely produces more domestic and Islamic terrorists, and thereby more victims. The most fearful people elect the most neurotic politicians, and in doing so they weaken the protections of democracy, making social conditions all the more frightening.
Fear is also a big player in the enemy camp. Fear directly produces terrorists. They’re so addicted to their fear that they become monsters in order to avoid transcending it. What exactly is their fear? They fear letting go of their rigid belief system and transcending their unevolved identity. To let go of their beliefs, it feels to them, is to surrender to the values of the “enemy.” Because they’re so fearful and passive, they interpret progressive or enlightened beliefs as defeat of what they stand for.
In other words, they feel, out of inner weakness, that it’s a loss of their identity and a defeat for their own beliefs and values to consider incorporating into their consciousness certain Western values concerning what might be healthy and wise.
Erich Fromm addressed this issue in his book, Fear of Freedom, published in the 1940s. (The book is titled Escape from Freedom in its U.S. editions.) Fromm wrote that “the amount of destructiveness to be found in individuals is proportionate to the amount to which expansiveness of life is curtailed.” He added: “The more the drive toward life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive toward destruction; the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life.”
Fromm felt that much of that “unlived life” was based on a lack of social or economic opportunity. I believe, however, that many individuals who have plenty of opportunity for an expansive life still resist developing an expansive consciousness. They fear the changes and unknowns that inner development will bring. They’re pawns to their inner resistance, that powerful aspect of human nature that strives to maintain the inner status quo out of fear of losing one’s familiar identity.
Terrorists create mayhem and destruction in order to avoid, out of unconscious fear, any authentic encounter with their real self. They too have libidinized their fear, making of it the thrill of destruction, the righteousness of their cause, and the glory of martyrdom. Otherwise they would more easily transcend their fear and become real people instead of primitive brutes.
When Franklin Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” one wonders if he fully appreciated the psychologically enslaving nature of “fear itself.” In any case, fear not! We can set ourselves free by making conscious these previously unconscious operations of our psyche.