I’ve been in an introspective mood recently, as I try to deal with the psychological and emotional fallout of the pandemic. As I think back through my recent life (and, if I’m honest, into the depths of my past), I am peeling back the layers of ideas and neuroses like layers of an onion, an onion that’s started to go off. If you’ve ever opened one, you find the black dust that sits between the layers. And that dust has had different names depending on the layer.
I used to think that I needed control. All the language I used around my issues pointed to a need to exert control: control of my body, my reactions, my thoughts, my behavior, my surroundings, and my circumstances. Not just control, but control no matter what. There was no room for loose ends or chaos (despite the almost constant chaos around me). A friend from my graduate school days (the height of my control mania phase) referred to me as “man vs his environment”, like a story about a man stranded in the woods, or marooned on a desert island. My adversary was the world around me. I was whipping the sea like Xerxes.
This brought me a lot of grief, and by extension brought grief to the people who were in my orbit. But here’s the thing: what lay behind that desperate desire for control was something more fundamental, and more damaging. Fear. Inside me is a wellspring of fear that doesn’t seem to run dry, and to combat it I have used the poor man’s version of courage, which is control. I sought to control everything around me, everything in my life, as a means to combat the fear I felt. For some things, it wasn’t so pernicious. After all, if you’re worried about your test scores, then the best way to deal with that fear would be to control yourself, study hard, work relentlessly and perform. Maybe a little unhealthy, but this behavior is rewarded in society – in any society. The problem comes when your fear involves other people. Fear of rejection is controlled by doing the rejection yourself, or never letting yourself get close enough for there to be anything at stake. Fear of social isolation is controlled by never saying no to anyone, going to everything, putting up with minor humiliations lest you force people to make a choice between you and another option – it’s a control that’s out of control. And that’s not the worst of it. Fear of an increasingly bold white supremacist bully inhabiting the White House with no legislative checks and a judiciary that’s essentially beholden to him, there’s no controlling that. That’s just straight fear, or Fear, orbited by its handmaiden, Anxiety.
FDR said that the only thing to fear was fear itself, and he was more right than he knew. Fear is one of the most basic, fundamental emotions in life, and not just human life. It’s literally hardwired into the brains of every creature on Earth. But I feel like this is a sorry excuse for my behavioral tendencies. After all, other people seem to be coping with it just fine. They go about their days as though they are not numbered; as though the miasma of this pandemic does not surround them; as though fear is not paralyzing. They are perhaps ignorant, but they are not superhuman