A Meditation on Fear

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

220px-The_Thinker,_RodinSometimes I’ll be watching something and a thought will occur to me and it will stick in my mind and lead me into a meditation on a more global idea that remains with me as I try to puzzle it out. A train of thought set off this week was a TV program in which a person had to deal with aging and it was clear that their fear of their own mortality that controlled their actions. The program is forgotten and unimportant in this piece, but it did start me spending much time extrapolating the implications from that situation. This represents the rude beginnings of a theory I’ve developed, sans research, on why many people respond the way they do to the world, especially in a sociopolitical sense. Feel free to attack it, because it is merely a product of my tangled thought processes and in truth I don’t even know if it is particularly original, or the result of my synthesis of much I’ve learned and read through the years.

Noticeable human development began at least a million years ago in an apelike creature that was small and relatively weak, considering the predatory creatures that surrounded it. Life was a tricky proposition for that creature and the act of merely staying alive consumed its time. I would think that almost all of its day was spent in a state of fear, causing adrenalin rushes and hyper sensitivity to its environment. Those with the most fear, sensitivity and intelligence survived enough to pass on their genes to the coming generations, thus continuing the evolutionary cycle. As time and evolution passed enormous changes in brain size and other factors turned this fragile being into an omnivore predator that mastered the food chain. Yet still remaining were the instincts of fear and hyper-vigilance, since life even at the top of the food chain remained brutal and short. Those instincts protected us well until a next evolutionary step that took us to a whole new level, leaving us as unquestioned masters of life on this planet. That step is what some are calling a social evolutionary process. When humans began to band together into larger groups their place in the world increased exponentially. This “social evolution” changed the Earth and continues today, but nevertheless we are still primarily ruled by fear and by hyper-vigilance. Let me take you where this thought has led me and perhaps you can show me the flaws in my nascent “theory” and provide me with respite from its repetition in my brain.

Fear of death has to be a common instinct to almost all species, but it is of particular importance to humans because of our understanding that we all will die. All life is a struggle for survival and that struggle concludes with death. The idea of our own non-existence is on some level a frightening one for even the most stoic among us.  As human societies became more complex this fear of death had to be dealt with or social collapse would surely follow. On the Savannahs of Africa, hunters in small packs tracked deadly game for meat. Despite the organization of a hunt, any individual was risking their life for the good of their social group, as well as the filling of their stomach. In small social units this risk was worth it, because everyone’s life was at stake. As these small social units became tribes though, we can assume that there were those who sought to escape the danger for the sake of their own safety. I think that this led to the rudimentary beginnings of religion as a means to coerce a larger social group into working together for the common goal of survival. As the complexity of societies increased philosophy developed as an offshoot of religion and from philosophy came political and economic ideas that branched into their own kind of philosophical thought.

The germ of this idea began in a book recommended to me by our regular contributor Blouise and I think one or two others. The book is: “The Social Conquest of Earth” by the distinguished scientist Edward O. Wilson. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._O._Wilson In the book Professor Wilson demonstrates his belief that in addition to the biological evolution of species, there have been in a few species an advanced “social evolution” that has inextricably entwined with biological evolution, to take these species to even greater levels of success in the evolutionary struggle. The other species which he talks of are insects, such as Ants, Termites and Bees that have found long term success and growth due to evolving into creatures with complex social structures. I don’t have the scientific expertise, or the insight to do this book justice, but if nothing comes of your reading here other than reading this book, then it will be a success, because Wilson presents a compelling argument.

As a scientist Professor Wilson looks at human behavior from the perspective of the species as a whole, as a retired psychotherapist my interest is more in how people encounter this confusing knowledge, the effect of it on their life and their individual reactions to it. My experience is that there are a large percentage of human beings that live their lives in a constant state of anxiety, fear and dread that lurks below the surface of their conscious mind. The evolutionary factor that has caused the defense mechanism of fear to be so strong in us, certainly has kept us viable as a species, yet in the social context that Professor Wilson speaks of, it can also carry within us the seeds of our extinction. I think that this is apparent if we look at some of the foibles of modern human life and also extrapolate how the interactions of our basic human fears, with the complexities of modern existence have created the danger of our own self-destruction.

In a small social unit of perhaps up to 25 people, the leader was the physically strongest individual and fear of death via the hunt, was overcome by fear of punishment from the leader. The leader of let’s say 100 people would have more difficulty in controlling the group through fear and so developed hierarchical social structure. This was nothing new in evolution as we can see from the hierarchies in the society of Apes and Monkeys our close evolutionary relatives. However, as best as science can currently tell the average 5 year old human is as smart as, or smarter than any of these simians, so we can assume the hierarchical structure was a natural result of social evolutionary processes, limited by the capacity of intelligence and communication. Among most species the notion of territoriality seems a result of adapting to the surrounding environment. Even with plentiful game the struggle for food was constant, the idea of battling between groups of the same species competing for food and water was a simple affair among pack animals, overcoming the individual’s fear of death. If one did not fight the other pack for survival, one would either die, or have to run away alone. When the perception increases to the level of humans, the options for actions and foresight of possible consequences are such that more is needed to overcome the fear of dying.

The problem on this level of evolution for humans is that environments change over time and with it the need to adapt to changing circumstance. A greater bond was needed to grow and expand the tribal experience. In my opinion that bond was religion. On one hand religion worked to calm the fear of death and on the other it worked to explain the confusing nature of life itself. As religion evolved it also worked hand in glove (generally) with the hierarchy to maintain its power within the expanding societal group. It gave “rules” to govern the way people should live within their larger social group and it was justification for fearing and opposing other social groups offering competition for resources. On the beginnings of religion evidence has been found dating religious symbols back to about 30,000 BCE. Currently Archaeologists place the earliest known development of human societal history, be it Sumer or Egypt at about 5,000 years ago. My own suspicions are that in the years to come they will discover far older roots of human civilization. In postulating the suddenly blossoming of Sumer and then Egypt, from simple farming society to monument building civilized empires, represent too great a leap, without intervening steps currently unknown.

In those two civilizations, that have left us written records, we see religion working in tandem with the political hierarchy to build great structures through harnessing the manpower of the entire people. The monuments in Sumer were temples to the Gods and in Egypt served as tombs for the Pharaohs, who were considered Gods. From those early beginnings the complexities of the interactions evolved to the extent that brings us to the present day. A world where humanity has the tools to destroy itself and where our fears are exploited to control us, either through religion, politics, xenophobia or a mixture of all of these elements.

In the end though, shorn of the complexity of “isms”, human societies are primarily governed by fear of death and its complementary aspect fear of the “other”. Structurally, from a hierarchical standpoint, we are little different than the society of the Great Apes and on top of that structure our leaders are similar to the “grey-backs” that rule our evolutionary “cousins”. For America the defining moment of this 21st Century has been 9/11. The fear engendered by that terrorist act was engineered into two wars and into a drastic change in government power. A majority of the American people were so frightened by that event that they willingly acceded to these changes in their governance and embraced activity, such as torture, to keep their inner fears at bay.

In my own lifetime, approaching 70 years, the changes in the world around me have been phenomenal and most times I spend struggling to keep up with these changes. For those who watched the “speculative” Star Trek in 1966 their handheld computer communicators have become our now ubiquitous cell phones. Much of the Science Fiction I read in the 50’s and 60’s have become if not reality, strong theoretical possibilities. Forget technology though. The social changes are also quite remarkably startling. The attitudes towards race, sexuality, gender and ethnicity while not free from prejudice and stigma have certainly come a long way towards that goal. It requires no great insight to understand that for many these “changes”, that have “rocked” their world, have led to heightened anxiety and the fear that drives that anxiety. It is no coincidence that the recurrence of s strong religious fundamentalist strain developed in the 60’s when all over the world society’s had their stability shaken by a youth unwilling to accept their predestined role. Then too, the experience of psychedelic drugs tends to disconnect one somewhat from the standard definitions of reality. For many the dislocation was such that they grasped onto religious faith as a rock to cling to as the tidal wave of social change threatened their emotional grounding. We see in America the result of many of our people overcome by fear, which to my mind is nurtured by the elite that rules us and through that fear they are willing to take extraordinary measures to give them some sense of comfort that they are safe from random death. That this is illusory is quite beside the point. The reality is that each of us faces death daily from completely mundane causes. The likelihood of a terrorist act, a school shooting, or being murdered in our beds, is infinitesimally smaller than a car accident, illness or falling off a bike. For all the fear generated our lives are so much safer now than they ever have been in all of human history. The anxiety and fear though that many live in as their constant emotional state paradoxically decreases our safety and increases the possibility of human self-destruction.

With that long explanatory preamble I finally get to the nub of my thinking this week. While fear is a human necessity for survival, as I well know, it can also be a self defeating instinct. While fear can manifest itself in response to an immediately perceived danger which is needed protection, it can also manifest itself into debilitating anxiety which can lead to inappropriate responses to our external environment. One definition of anxiety that I like is by Fritz Perls and states: “Anxiety is the difference between now and then”. The anxious individual is afraid of some future action perceived, rather than some imminent danger. Paranoia is a form of anxiety and the response by the paranoid can turn deadly. To my mind much of the response to 9/11 came from anxiety rather than reality. Remember the non-existent “weapons of mass destruction”?

The human condition today is that our lives are ruled by fear in the form of irrational anxiety. Due to it the collective “we” tries to react to “threats” that are more perceived than real. Our leaders, many of whom suffer from anxiety themselves, nevertheless exploit it in us for their own personal gain and indeed “leaders” always have. The trappings of civilization in the form of religions, philosophies economic and political systems are chimeras that disguise the reality, which is many of us are ruled by our fears/anxieties and thus the necessary survival instinct of fear, may in the end lead to our self destruction. I spent a good bit of this week ruminating on this, was it worth it, or just a product of my own anxiety?

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger


55 thoughts on “A Meditation on Fear

  1. “AY, No, they’re not saying you “can’t” believe in God, just that it’s folly.”


    Specifically, who is the “they” you refer to? Am I included in your “they”? I could assume so from past history and from the fact that I wrote the blog that created this thread. If that is the case, then you are wrong yet again and you can look at my comment above to see why.

  2. This topic kind of jives with the previous one about the FBI not recording their interrogations. There it is fear of justice and fear of truth.

  3. While I agree with the article on fear being a primary stimulus in evolutionary development, there are a great many conclusions drawn here that I don’t think are supported, though I do understand it’s musings rather than firm conclusions.

    An interesting thought did spin off into my head from reading this article though, which I guess is the mark of a worthwhile thesis. What are the BENEFITS to religion, politics, and other social control mechanisms? After all, to follow the thesis that social evolution provided us the secondary step to become the unquestioned masters of the evolutionary game (for now), religion, political structure, philosophy, and economics are simply aspects of that social evolution.

  4. Mike,

    Some look for nick picking…..wherever they can find it… I think I was the first one hat bought up the word god…. But there’s always something motivating someone or something and most call it a god…..some natural law…. Some karma… Some kismet….

  5. AY, Agreed. Folks like to parse words. I have made it clear I believe in God, and dislike organized religion. What others believe is their business. I would never impose my values on them. I like to keep it short and clear. Some here write in long, tortured paragraphs. A conversation in a bar w/ them must be hours long.

  6. nick spinelli,

    The spam folder has been emptied so I couldn’t find the comment you’re talking about. Give it another try.

  7. Nal,

    I was just in the interface working on my column for later today. I approved nick’s comment and then emptied the spam folder.

  8. Nal,

    I read that too, but I’m not so sure blacklisting in the short term isn’t still a good approach considering the recent “bugginess” of the the filter. I’ve taken a blended approach. If it’s clearly a commercial weblink that was missed (some that link to the sales of a certain kind of boots come to mind) or if I see multiple spams from a single IP, I blacklist it. If it’s garden variety spam, I just spam list it.

  9. Mike: Why am I here? What is this all about? What is my purpose here?

    Personally, I find it freeing to realize it really isn’t about anything and I have no assigned purpose. I know others may find that bleak, but to me it means my purpose in life is mine to choose, and meaning is mine to find and mine to judge.

    For myself, I find meaning (and enjoyment) in adding to the state of human knowledge and helping to provide practical solutions to real world problems.

  10. Good reasoning Mike, thanks for that. I think this line of reasoning is reinforced by the work of Dr. Sam Harris for his doctorate at UCLA. FMRI evidence suggests a clear connection with religious/conservative thinking and brains who’s amygdalas ‘light-up” when challenged. Progressives also respond with a fight or flight reflex, but because they have a more developed adrenal cortex their ability to reason, go with the flow, accept change, and minimize the fear response to everything, including death, results in different social behavior. I’m a college drop-out, but Sam makes sense to me if that is what he’s saying.

    I’m an anti-theist so naturally my views appear extreme in the American environment. That said, I believe it is in my self-interest to effort toward a society which is not dominated by ignorance, superstition, and above all, hypocrisy. The PEW folks tell us that half our neighbors believe that a zombie is going to come out of the sky IN THEIR LIFETIMES, and kill everybody so that they can have eternal life. I can’t believe this leads to forward thinking decisions on the part of this huge demographic.

    In my judgment, this is not the kind of thinking that is going to “save the earth”, it is, in fact, the thinking that got us into this fix.

  11. Perry, I love your tolerance for those that think differently than yourself. I pray I may have your clarity of thought one day.

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