One of humanity’s most primal and enduring symbols is that of the forest. Reaching back into some of our earliest folktales, it has represented our often-uneasy relationship with the world; a largely uncharted domain of shifting shadows and potential dangers. Always, we are pulled from the safety of the known—the warm circle of family, the small cluster of village lights—into the strange, wide world, the metaphorical darkness of the woods. We are pulled by necessity, the search for sustenance or the desire for broader horizons. Like fairy-tale wanderers, traveling under a curse, we must move forward, never quite sure of our bearings, never quite free of our fear, unsure whether the next fork in the forest path will bring us sought after treasure or sharp, flashing teeth.
As a species, our imagination is rife with manifestations of our fears. Like extravagant mushrooms, the permutations spring up from the fecund forest floor of our imaginations, permeating our art and our spirituality: folktale witches and wolves, Satan and Beelzebub, Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter.
Fear can take many forms, wear many masks. It is as multifarious as life itself. I would even suggest, on a societal level, that racism, restrictive immigration policies, and nuclear arsenals are nothing more than extreme symbols of our primal fear of the unknown. And herein is our greatest danger to ourselves. As Sir Francis Bacon once cautioned, nothing is as terrible as fear itself.
We have been taught by so many stories to believe the great struggle of the universe is between God and the Devil, good and evil. Perhaps the argument should be made that the true apocalyptic clash is between freedom and fear. Can we find the freedom within ourselves to think clearly and creatively, to embrace and relish diversity, to unchain our hearts and souls? Or do we cower in the shadows of the woods, and fire arrows at everything we perceive as a threat?
So, if it is true that fear itself is the bogeyman we must face down if we are to survive and thrive, what are the best weapons for our survival? What is the blade that will bring down the great bristling wolf of our imminent self-destruction? I see it as a double-edge blade, with one edge being imagination, and the other being human reason.
As far as imagination goes, there’s an obvious irony at work. It is, after all, imagination that gives rise to fears in the first place. Our ability to conceive of dangers beyond the immediate. Yet, one of the surest ways to dispel monsters is to confront them. The imagination, when manifested in art, gives shape to the monsters that lurk in the shadows. At the same time, art has a healing power, appealing to the universal imagination. It allows us to connect one to the other, understanding the universality of our fears, as well as our wonder.
Art, when it is truly relevant, truly visceral, revels in and explores the darkness, rather than denying it. It reassures us that life can be rich and worthwhile, despite the darkness. Danger, brutality and madness are intrinsic to life. If there are mermaids, there are also monsters. Rather than pretending they don’t exist, it illuminates them. It reaches out to take our hand, telling us that others have seen the demons as well, that others have shared our fears. I think it is in its unblinking gaze at both the beauty and the ugliness of existence that art reaches it highest purpose.
The other sharp edge we need is clear-eyed reason and logic. One of the classic responses to fear is the “fight or flight” mechanism. Another is denial. Is this why so many of us are afraid to acknowledge the reality of climate change? Is it fear of losing what we have that makes so many of us afraid of immigrants? Fear of losing our sense of identity that causes us to mock and deride those we see as different? Fear of change that causes us to vote into power ranting demagogues who promise a return to some imagined time of glory? I believe it is, and the antidote to that crippling terror resides in our higher attributes: reason, logic, courtesy, and respect.
Live the rest of our existence as a species quaking in our boots and destroying all that is good about us and around us? Well, “bugger that for a game of soldiers,” as an English friend of mine used to say. It’s high time we stopped shivering in the woods, and gathered together beneath the immense, star-filled skies to share some really good stories about how much better the world could be.