So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
—Franklin D. Roosevelt
Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
What is this that lurks, slithering like a silvery serpent through the shadows of my psyche? It makes a full appearance only on occasion, just enough to assert its presence, its dominion, acquired by craftiness and stealth at the time of my expulsion from paradise. Since then, it is always with me, moving me to be obedient, to think, feel, and behave in prescribed conformity.
The serpent is like the shepherd, whose charge is to keep sheep from straying to a life apart from the flock. He is a cunning shepherd who is rarely severe and is mostly good-natured, whose flute playing away in the hills is a lulling, comforting reminder of my boundaries, where I am and am not to travel.
Now and again the shepherd makes his obligatory appearance, massacring, mutilating, or humiliating a few inner impulses to be sure we remember the power of his presence, his indomitable effectiveness. And so we stay in line, and don't speak out of turn, and want two from column A and one from column B, and keep ourselves occupied, and never ever consider the plight of the lambs or the strange ritual of shearing.
It is not only an inner slavery I am speaking of. In the "real" world the highly paid and specialized psychologists with ample knowledge of the mechanics of suggestibility and an inverse proportion of conscience consult to the power possessors, advising that the most effective means of social control is to arouse and promote a constant and unflagging state of fear.
They moonlight at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, not just to help elicit secrets from "terrorists" but to be sure their victims' ghost-like, ghastly images standing on boxes with pointy hats like grand wizards crucified through their testicles with jumper cables, get published in the New Yorker to impress on the left-leaning liberal reader what obviously sanctioned evil can be got away with and that she could be next.
The terrifying effect of ingesting a perpetual diet of meaningless, banal, or horrific images systematically muddles our capacity for common sense and genuine being conscience.
We are invited to be afraid of the Soviets, of global thermonuclear war, of terrorists with utility knives, of the militarized police department, of ozone depletion and atmospheric carbon, of economic slowdown, of the earth eventually coming too close to the sun and getting charred like a marshmallow in a campfire. There is always something new to cause us to live in a state of trepidation, with never enough inner spaciousness to wonder at, let alone seek, our heart's desire.
But there is the occasion that by some grace, accidental traumatic event, or earned release we find ourselves free. In such a moment we are faced with the reality of our own being, the imminent and inevitable death of our body, and the clarity that everything we have been taught to care about, and to which we have dedicated all our striving for as long as we remember is fleeting and will pass away and dissolve into nothing the moment our body ceases being a vessel for life.
In such moments we realize that life on the treadmill, fleeing the whip-wielding serpent-shepherd fear and chasing comfort and safety is no way to live. We resolve to step away and begin to explore the wood around. We see that though the forest seems impenetrable and dark, full of shadows and unknown perceptions, at least it is not the view from the treadmill.
One step off the treadmill and we see a path, which we begin to follow, and we come to a gate. It is a high gate guarded by a flaming sword, but the we remember a line from a movie—"Only the penitent shall pass"—and we drop to our knees and crawl beneath the spinning, flaming sword, and the gate swings open wide, and there before us is a mirror. But it is not an ordinary mirror that shows us to ourselves in reverse. It is a mirror that shows us to ourselves as we are, and we realize that until that moment, we have only ever understood ourselves in reverse.
And when we look up we see that we are not alone. There is a whole assembly gathered together in this clearing at the foot of a mountain so tall the peak is invisible. Signs of preparation for a journey are everywhere. Some are sorting gear, preparing food, packing sacks, for tomorrow at dawn, the expedition to the Mountain of Freedom begins.