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. “I missed theimplicit cues that this is really about believing in God as folly. I’m still fairly new to the machinations here. Mea culpa, God foirgive me.”


    You didn’t miss any clues, you misread what was written. I was referring to religion in my piece, not to a belief in God, which is a different matter. Religion is an attempt at explaining the meaning of existence. Belief in God is a belief that there is a creative force that informs the Universe. I don’t believe in religion to the extent that I think that believe actually diminishes the wonders of life and the Universe, by positing a God that is in effect a Judge or a tyrannical rule maker.

    I personally believe and have stated it here many times, that there is a creative force that informs the Universe. I don’t believe that humans have the capacity to understand the workings of that force and so project upon it their own neurotic feelings. Therefore I consider myself a Deist. I believe such a force exists, but I make no pretense of understanding why, or what it does. I believe in this “force” partly because of my feeling that it has improbably touched me in wonderful ways. It seems that in my life I have been incredibly “lucky” at times, beyond probability. By all rights I was a dead man 3 years ago and yet I received a heart transplant in record time compared to others. I’ve faced an inordinate amount of tragedy in my personal life yet to counter balance that I am in some ways the luckiest person I know of. It is possibly irrational, but in my inner feelings I feel that I’ve been saved time and again from disaster by some force beyond me.

    The difference though between me and a religious person with the same feelings, is that I recognize that my feelings about a creative force (God if you will) could well be my projections onto the random occurrences of life, while a “religious” person can’t entertain that possibility.

    Now there are those commenting here, like Tony, who are atheists. He comes by his beliefs validly from his perspective and he has quite viable arguments to back up his beliefs, whereas religion relies on faith, not facts. I wouldn’t argue with him any more than I would argue belief with a devout Catholic. We each need to develop our own way of coping with the confusing reality of life. When I argue with religion it is not about particular doctrine, but the attempt to impose that doctrine on non-believers.

  2. AY, No, they’re not saying you “can’t” believe in God, just that it’s folly. I would never be so presumptuous to tell an atheist their non belief is folly. That’s the libertarian in me. To each their own.

  3. Nick,

    No one is saying you can’t believe in a god…. We all believe in something whether its a designated god of Mandy’s choosing….. Or money…. Or life… Or drugs or some substance….your car…. There are many forms of worship…..

    Thanks Mile…

  4. “No point in tickling the tail of a dragon, but cowering in caves afraid to come out because a dragon might be out there is no way to live.”


    So true and that is what I refer to as anxiety. Both of us in our work have no doubt time and again run into those who either become paralyzed by their anxiety, or who actually are motivated by it to strike first with dire consequence. I put anxiety one way in my piece, but another way is to define it as “fear of some future, dire occurrence”.

    “Life goes on… Even if we cease to exist…..in this temporary housing at least….”


    Very well put.

    “One plausible theory for the beginning of religion is that humans are by our nature always looking for relations between cause and effect, and abstractions of those relations.”


    Bingo to that and to the rest of your comment. Human need to interpret cause and effect leads us to create structures to deal with our safety from the various dangers always inherent in life. That sometimes there simply is nothing we can do to prevent tragedy’s seems unacceptably frightening to so many of us that the “structures” we create (police, nuclear weapons, etc.) are at times merely symbolically soothing.

  5. I missed theimplicit cues that this is really about believing in God as folly. I’m still fairly new to the machinations here. Mea culpa, God foirgive me.

  6. “Is it fear of death or to provide an explanation for the purpose or meaning of life?”


    An excellent question, which I’ll answer in saying that the human realization of the knowledge of their own mortality led directly to trying to understand the purpose or meaning of life. The fleeting nature of life itself calls into question the origin and the reason for our existence. True human consciousness as it arose had to result in the realization that we were quite different from the other animals around us. While getting to the top of the food chain was no doubt a heady experience we still died like all the other animals. The question arises then of what is dying? From that would naturally flow trying to understand why this is all happening, how it began and what is its meaning? At least that is how I see it, but of course I recognize this is merely my surmise and that others could have equally valid explanations.

    Many years ago I heard a quote about philosophy that has resonated with me through the years, although its source is long forgotten:

    “All human philosophy can be summed up as the thoughts that run through an average person’s mind as they take their leisurely Saturday Night bath”

    Think about it. To me those thoughts would be: Why am I here? What is this all about? What is my purpose here? Those questions are the seeds of all philosophical thought. Contextually though these questions arise because of the awareness of mortality. If life we infinite and we merely aged, but didn’t wither, there would be no urgency to find meaning. Since we age, withering in the process and then die, all in a short span of years meaning and purpose become paramount among those who think about things. Hypothesis become explanation and then become dogma.

  7. Good article Mike…

    We are taught that the police are here to help us…. But there are consequences for the help…. Intrusion….. What is rational fear is based upon ones experiences in life….. And maybe past lives…. But the fact remains…. That it is that persons journey…. No one else’s…. If you believe in a god…. So be it…. If you have some form of alternative god….. Then….that does not mean that your journey is any less important than the one with a god that they’ve never seen…. Life goes on… Even if we cease to exist…..in this temporary housing at least….

  8. RWL: One plausible theory for the beginning of religion is that humans are by our nature always looking for relations between cause and effect, and abstractions of those relations. Humans are not unique in the animal kingdom for their ability to do that, but we are unique in the extent to which we can do that.

    Science is the formalization of that nature in a way that produces reliable knowledge and prediction; our intuitions about cause and effect and the proper abstractions to use become our hypotheses to be tested.

    Religion is the application of that nature without the testing. We observe that lightning and thunder are highly correlated. But without testing, when we try to understand where lightning and thunder come from, without any knowledge of electric potentials we have no answer, and our mind just invents crap with what it DOES know.

    That is not as silly as it might seem from an evolutionary standpoint, more often than not any decision is better than no decision, and often the pattern thrown up by your subconscious can be complete BS that incorporates a grain of truth making it slightly more predictive of the correct path than nothing at all.

    If the lightning kills somebody or destroys somebody’s property, our mind (incorrectly) intuits intent, and collectively these otherwise not-understood natural disasters and apparent intent to cause harm become the Gods of Olympus, spirits in the rivers and forests and animals, etc. If you think turbulence and flooding in a river is indicative of anger and rage, it is silly to attribute actual emotion to a river, but by unintentional analogy, it is also a good idea to wait for the river to “calm down” before attempting to cross it, and perhaps to keep your distance from Old Man River. It isn’t going to kill you for crossing out of malicious intent, and it isn’t trying to warn you about anything, but it might indeed kill you!

    An alternative reason for the persistence of early religion is the utility it has for the keeping of contracts and promises. That is reflected in religions still today: Many, many religious people seem to truly believe that without God keeping tabs on us, there is no reason to be good.

    So the hypothesis is that a mutual belief in the supernatural, spirits, an afterlife and some kind of supernatural punishment (karma or direct action by a God) could keep people from opportunistically breaking laws just because no humans were around to see it.

    So for example it could be your belief in God that keeps you from stealing from your neighbor’s game traps, and him from stealing from you. That mutual belief lets you live together without constant suspicion and protection from each other, so you enjoy the benefits of partnership (of an entire village) without the expense of constant monitoring; because the religion makes everyone believe they are under constant and inescapable surveillance, so they behave.

    That works well in groups small enough that everybody knows everybody, but fails when groups get large enough (more than a few hundred adults) that the confounding factor of anonymity is introduced; we cannot keep track of everybody (and so our mind resorts to abstractions of “types” of people).

    That is when we start to need police of some sort, and we (the human species) probably began with “police” that were actually the leaders that enabled the first level of grouping; a combination of shamans (religious knowledge keepers) and chieftains (military leaders). It is also the reason for the harsh penalties for apostasy and blasphemy; in early villages where the society relied heavily on the threat of magical punishment to maintain social order, non-believers were a lethal threat to their entire way of life.

    There is a tiny bit of evidence that religion (along with language) began in Heidelbergensis, the predecessor humanoid species that evolved into both homo sapiens and Neandertals. (The evidence for all three species is “grave goods,” burying their dead with not only weapons but pretty things like stone art, flowers, quartz crystals and shells and stones with no apparent purpose other than being unusual and pretty.)

    A lot of these early developmental problems arose with sedentary farming and the invention of villages, about 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, depending on how one interprets the archaeological evidence. They were solved (sort of, and partially) by various sociological inventions, like governments and courts, separate police, military, political and religious “departments”, etc.

    But many (I daresay a super-majority) of people today STILL believe that without supernatural backup, without religion, the world would descend into chaos and anarchy. They still believe that without God’s inescapable surveillance system and the threat of inerrant supernatural punishment evil would reign unrestrained. They do not believe in self-restraint without the assistance (and threat) of God.

    Perhaps religious belief is what lets them conflate government with God (or agents thereof) and accept as natural and necessary the power of government to intrusively surveil us.

  9. If I was married to Eleanor I would understand the concept of “fear itself”.

  10. FDR said the Fear thing before he got caugh by his wife with Lucy whatshername.

  11. As for FDR and his statement, I do not know if this was before or after the Japs bombed Pearl Harbour.

  12. I am glad that you wrote this so that I could center the topic and think about it. Fear is legit when you are on the railroad bridge with no sidewalk and the train is coming. Fear of a great recession coming is nothing but fear itself.
    If you walk with a tough dog you will have less fear of robbers. If you discuss religion with someone not selling it then you will have less fear of the hearafter because you will not be hearing about it. Employ TurboTax and you will not fear the IRS. So, stay off bridges, get a dog and pay your taxes.
    Me? I have not had any fear since the day up on the railroad bridge. I am a dog and I dont owe taxes.

  13. Mike S,

    After reading everyones’ comment, I am unable to narrow down my ideas for my part 2 (It’s hard trying to concentrate, after drinking a few Blue Moons). However, one of your last comments was very appealing:

    “Yet when it comes to the formation of religion I do believe that fear of death was why religion was needed in the first place”

    Is it fear of death or to provide an explanation for the purpose or meaning of life? It is interesting that scholars and historians are scratching their heads in discovering Religion’s origin:

    “The origin of religion is uncertain, but it has been suggested that it evolved for the nurture of children.”

    However, in a few countries, religion is the law of the land.

    Did you know that there are over 4200 different religions (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion)?

  14. Mike contributed:
    “The sociopathic war makers very seldom risk their own necks.”
    That is very often why it happens, too much insulation. Pointless wars, which are nearly all of them save for ones are truly defensive in nature, should be fought by the leaders themselves in a boxing ring. Whichever is the winner gets to wear a medal around his neck, and that is all. He can have the satisfaction of being the victor. And everyone else in those countries can be safe and go back to really not giving a rat’s arse about whatever it was that spurred the leaders to fight.

  15. Tony,

    I took some artistic license with evolution for brevities sake, but then you’re the real scientist, I’m just a psychotherapist of the existential branch. Most of us do feelings not science. 🙂

    For the general range of most comments I may have been unclear. I’m referring to fear in general, not specifically the fear of death. From an evolutionary perspective though I do believe that all species fear insticts are related to staying alive long enough to pass on ones genes. With human sophistication fear has taken on much more complexity than just death. Yet when it comes to the formation of religion I do believe that fear of death was why religion was needed in the first place, otherwise why would humans so willingly sacrifice themselves in zero sum games like war. The sociopathic war makers very seldom risk their own necks.

  16. Great job Mike. I think FDR said it best . All we have to fear is fear itself. The boogeyman is scarier on paper than real life.

  17. Ralph, I have seen all their movies and read their books. They are expressing their own issues w/ death, love, intimacy, etc. Certainly, we relate because EVERYONE has issues. But, there work is VERY personal. Many writers/directors produce work that is simply commercial. Neither one of these guys have made the BILLIONS, instead of “millions,” that others who have less talent because they have decided to do what moves them in a more personal, than commercial way. They have certainly done ok. There won’t be any telethons for either, but they could have been much wealthier. I show my utmost respect by reading them, and going to their movies. Actions speak more loudly than mere words.

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