5 Fears

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It is a scary time to be alive. In a time of rampant personal, social, and political polarization I think the one thing that we can actually all agree on is that it is scary AF right now. We may not necessarily agree on the reasons why it’s scary. 

But it’s scary.

That said, I think that fear gets a bad rap. We are often so focused on avoiding or minimizing the things that make us afraid that we lose sight of the things that make life worth living. Ironically it is the very things that keep us most alive - that most enable us to face fear - that fear tells us to avoid at all costs.

Fear does have its uses. Fear can keep us safe. Fear makes us pay attention. In a world where we are literally bombed with distraction, that is no small feat. Fear deserves some of our respect and not just our.... well... fear. 

We should normalize fear. It is one of the very few human universals. We may not know each other’s language or culture. We may see the world in fundamentally different ways. We may have different values and ideals. But every single one of us knows what it is like to be scared as hell.

We should be more open about talking about the things that we are afraid of. Part of what gives fear its power is that we think that we are the only ones scared. Fear isolates us from one another. That isolation keeps us from finding answers to fear, or at least from finding someone who would walk with us in fear. Fear loses power when we share vulnerability.

This week I will be sharing 5 Fears. These are 5 of the things that fill me with anxiety, fear, and apprehension. I am not talking about things like clowns and heights (although let’s be clear both of those things scare the beejesus out of me). I am talking about deeper fears. The kinds of things that cause existential dread and potential despair.

I am sharing these things not to scare you. I am not sharing them to wallow in being afraid. I share because I want to engage the fear. To run to it. To meet it head on. To be vulnerable and to remind us all that being afraid is a part of being alive. 

It is a part of being human.

Fear #1

Getting older.

In 1970, a small museum in southern New Zealand got a new animal, Henry the tuatara. Tuataras are a unique animal. They look like lizards, but are actually a completely different species. A distant reptile cousin, tuataras are a weird evolutionary mishmash. They have bird like skulls, but an amphibian like brain, and lungs that are different than any other animals. Tuatara hearts beat only 6 or 7 times per minute, and they can go years without eating. Young tuataras take some 20 years to reach sexual maturity. No one is exactly sure how long tuataras live in the wild, but the best estimates put it at well over 100 years old. Maybe twice that.

One of the reasons they think so is our friend Henry.

Henry was one of the first tuataras that came to the museum. He had some challenges. Despite the fact that tuataras are social, Henry had to be kept separate from the others at first. Henry was 60 years old when he arrived, and keepers hoped he would breed. However, they weren’t able to even try until 15 years after Henry arrived. He was introduced to a female named Mildred in 1984. Henry promptly bit Mildred’s tail off. Don’t worry. It grew back.

Years later a routine physical exam revealed that Henry had several growths on his cloaca, the tuatara sexual organ. He underwent surgery and had the growths removed. Suddenly, it was like a whole new Henry. He was energetic and friendly. He started to show interest in females again, especially Mildred.

So it was that in 2009, some 25 years after their first attempt, and 40 years after Henry’s arrival in New Zealand, that Henry and Mildred do what tuataras do. Mildred would give birth to 11 eggs, 10 of which would survive (an unheard of survival rate). 

Henry was 100. Mildred, 80.

Henry would go on to father dozens more children with different females, and Mildred gave birth to different eggs from different males. Tuataras are very open that way. Henry is still alive, although he doesn’t actively breed anymore. He is still the leader of the tuataras at the museum, a band of which that now numbers 80 and is the largest such collection in the world.

When I think about getting older, I get afraid. I don’t worry about losing my hair (I shave my head anyway) or my looks (some people dig me, some don’t, it’s all gravy). I don’t worry about falling out of shape (round is a shape - I am always in shape). 

I do worry about my health. I worry about my brain constantly. I have brain damage. I have had electroconvulsive therapy. I am at very high risk for dementia. I know that one day I will search for a thought, and be unable to find it. It’s not a question of if. It’s when. And that scares the fuck out of me.

I worry about my increasing lack of relevance. In this country we look through older people. We dismiss their experience. We care about what’s new. I am well past the point where I could walk into a room and turn heads with looks and charisma. I will soon be at the place where people no longer ask for my opinion, or listen to my ideas. Where everyone thinks they know me, and see me as cute. At some point in the near future I will go from being a man to being something kind of like a toddler. Cute. A little trying. And people will be wondering if I am gonna pee myself a little.

When I have these worries I try to think of Henry. He is still out there taking his shot. Swinging and blinging at 100. Rekindling love with the girl whose tail he bit off back in ‘84. 

I know. I am not a tuatara. And humans get treated differently when they get older. And it scares me.

Fear #2

Losing a child.

There is a nondescript bush in the Mojave Desert of southern California. If you were hiking through the desert you would pass by it without giving it another though. It is a simple creosote bush, sometimes colloquially referred to as chaparral. 

What you wouldn’t know just walking by the creosote is that it is nearly 12,000 years old.

Creosote ages in an unusual way. As its branches get to the end of their life cycle (30-90 years depending on conditions), they slowly die. The crown of the plant splits. It basically creates a clone of itself, and new branches begin to grow, slightly further out. This creates, over time, a series of expanding plants, in a circle or semi-circle. The wider the circles, the older the plant.

The picture above is of “King Clone,” a creosote bush that is among the oldest continually living organisms on earth. It is estimated at 11,700 years old. The bush that currently blows in the winds of the Mojave is an exact clone of the bush that grew a few dozen feet away nearly 12 millennia before. An unbroken line of existence twice as old as human writing. The first bush grew as humans first began to domesticate the goat. When nomads first started camping at a spring in the desert of the Middle East that would become to be called Jericho. It is a really long time ago. 

Children are part of what tethers us to the future. They are our legacy into the world. When I am long gone, my kids, and their kids, will persist. Hopefully. There is an incredible optimism in having children. One of the things that I struggle to reconcile is the optimism I showed in the temerity to have 5 kids, combined with the often deep pessimism I feel about the future. 

One of the things that has been extra nerve-wracking about Covid is the fear I feel for my children. I have been through so much, and carried so many burdens for so long. I could get Covid tomorrow and would chalk it up to another life experience and just wait to see what would happen next. I don’t worry about me. I DO worry about what would happen if one of my kids got it.

The day before our school system / town / state went into lockdown in March, we spent most of the day going from medical facility to medical facility with a very very sick Justin. At one point, he was so weak and dehydrated from throwing up he collapsed in my arms. I would love to tell you how that felt for me, but I have blocked it out. Seeing him so sick, so frail, so hurt... it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. And I had to do it for a few hours. Some parents do this for years.

Barb and I have survived almost everything a couple can survive. Mental illness. Combat. 5 kids. Having a child with special needs. Over 30 years as a couple. Every single thing that a family or couple can go through - everything - we have gone through and survived. Except one. We have never had a seriously ill kid or lost a child.

I know that this is largely beyond our control. Stuff happens. And. I can’t imagine losing one of the Fab Five. I can’t even put that in words. And that scares the hell out of me.

In the end, we drop our branches and we hope that the progeny we leave behind will continue to thrive. Having kids is an act of hope. It is an act of faith in an uncertain future. And faith always feels tenuous.

And tenuous is scary. 

Fear #3

That God exists.

In 1907, a skinny young student at the Carlisle Indian School approached the school’s athletic director and head football coach and expressed his interest in playing sports for the school. The teacher looked at the young man and asked what he played. “Anything,” said the kid, “but I especially want to play football.” The coach sized up the thin youngster. “I don’t think so,” came the reply.

The young member of the Sac and Fox tribe looked at the coach. This was his second time at Carlisle. The first time around, in 1904, he had to leave for the reservation in Oklahoma because his dad had passed suddenly. It fell on the young man to hold the farm together. His tribe came together to care for his family and farm so that the young man could go back east to Carlisle. He wasn’t one to quit.

Nearby the young man noticed a bar set up for high jump practice. It was set at 5 feet, 9 inches (my height). There were varsity jumpers older and stronger than the skinny kid who were running up to the bar and attempting to clear, most failing. The kid asked the coach for his attention, walked calmly to the bar, bent his knees slightly, and from a standing position cleared the bar. Some there would later say that he cleared the bar by a foot and a half.

The young coach relented immediately, and the skinny boy from the Sac and Fox tribe would begin practicing with the track team that day. Within a few years he became so good at so many events that for some track meets far away from Carlisle, he would be the only one who traveled to save the school money. And he would still win. Win entire track meets. For the Carlisle team. As one person. 

The coach was reluctant to let his track star play football. But a couple of years later he relented. Two years later that once skinny young man had grown into a 6-1, 205 pound wrecking crew that played virtually every position on the field. In 1911, the Carlisle Indians defeated the greatest college football power in the land, Harvard University, by a score of 18-15. That young man scored every single point for the Indians, and made his wildly creative young coach - Glenn “Pop” Warner - a household name.

A year later that young man would arrive in Stockholm for the 1912 Olympics. He would leave with gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon, and would widely be considered the greatest athlete in the world. Decades later, the Associated Press would call him the athlete of the century. His name was Jim Thorpe.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was the brainchild of Richard Henry Pratt, who in 1879 as a young Army officer sought to prove his contention that Native Americans were as capable as European Americans of success, if given the same opportunity for education and “civilization.” Pratt believed (as did many at the time) that Native culture was crumbling and that the only future for Native American peoples lay in their complete assimilation into white culture. The US Government agreed to give Pratt support to build a boarding school for Native youth at the Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania.

From 1879 to 1918, young men and women from tribes across what had once been their continent came from reservations in the western US to Carlisle. There they experienced the reality of Pratt’s dictum that to “save the man, one must kill the Indian.” 

The young native children had their long hair and braids cut into Western styles. They were given European names and forbidden from using their native language, even amongst each other. They were forced to attend chapel regularly, and any suggestion that they were worshipping their old gods were met with swift and Draconian punishments. They were forced into traditional western gender roles. Young girls that could have aspired to senior leadership in their tribal councils, and who had been encouraged to give voice to their thoughts and ideas, were suddenly and effectively muted. All students were expected to learn Westernized skills and trades, and lose all connection to the skills passed down to them from their elders for generations. If their parents or grandparents disagreed, then contact was cut off. The young Native people at Carlisle were taught that the way to success in America was exclusively and completely white.

Pratt would eventually rise to the rank of general and would be considered by most of the leading thinkers of the age to be one of the greatest Americans ever. He would remain convinced of the importance of assimilation for native tribes and would even call for the abolition of reservations in order that Indians could be completely and finally be assimilated into white American society.

Carlisle would become the model for 26 Indian boarding schools sponsored by the United States Government, and hundreds more operated by religious institutions and the secular reform organizations of the “progressive” age. Thousands of young Native children would be taken from their homes and educated at these schools.

A couple of years ago, Barb and I got to take an amazing trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. We visited the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. One of the exhibits literally took my breath away. It was a wall of red tags, hanging from leather strap necklaces. These tags belonged to Native children, some as young as 7 or 8, taken from their tribes and parents, given new names, and placed on a train to the east, to a place they had never been, to begin a new life in a world they knew nothing about, forcibly separated from all that they loved, by men that told them that it was for their own good. This tag belonged to a 11 year old Hopi boy who would become known as Billy.

I often think about the fact that we live in a country - in a world - where places like the Carlisle Indian School and its founder are considered the best of us. Where that complete inhumanity is seen as virtuous. A country that lionizes founding “fathers” who owned people. A country with an economy built on stolen labor and stolen land. I think of the internment of the Japanese, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the current family separation policy at our border. I think of all the things that our country has done to hurt, exploit, and marginalize - to steal and to plunder. And then I multiply it by the history of the world, by all the hurt and all the pain. And my brain breaks and I have to stop thinking about it because my heart can not hold that much pain. My heart is too small.

Then I think about the fact that God exists. That He (or She or They) are witnessing all this. And just watching it happen.

And THAT scares the hell out of me.

Fear #4

That God doesn’t exist.

Around the time that General Pratt was beginning to ramp up his efforts to “save” Native American children through forcible, militarized assimilation into white America, a young ranch hand in Nevada had a conversation with God.

Jack Wilson worked for a white man named David Wilson, who had essentially adopted young Jack, who was born a member of the Northern band of the Paiute Indian tribe in what is now called Nevada. Jack’s birth name was Wovoka, meaning wood cutter.

During a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889, Wovoka was seized by a vision. He was led by God to heaven. There he saw beautiful vistas in all directions. All of the Native peoples who had ever been were there, each tribe practicing its old ways. Those taken by disease, starvation, and the seemingly unending war with the whites were restored to youth and vigor. God told Wovoka that Jesus would be reincarnated in 3 years, and that if native peoples would dedicate themselves to peace and love, commit themselves to hard work, and refrain from lying and stealing, that they would be restored to God’s presence. The native people would be rejoined with their ancestors in a land without pain, or fear, or death. A land with no sickness and no starvation, where the lands were filled with buffalo and the rivers full of fish for the fullness of time.

To bring about this heavenly reconciliation, God told Wovoka, he had to take the message of God’s love and peace to the native peoples. He must teach them a dance, a celebration devoted to God. The dance would last 5 days and include all members of all nations. This dance could be taught, and reinterpreted based on each tribe’s traditions, and shared with all. 

It was called the Ghost Dance.

News of Wovoka’s vision, and his message of love and reconciliation in a land plentiful with buffalo ricocheted across the reservations of the American west like wildfire. Tribal leaders from bands across the US flocked to Nevada to meet with the prophet Wovoka, to hear his message of peace and learn his dance. Across the plains, drums echoed and people danced in circles, proclaiming the peace and love of God, and inviting the new world to come.

The Ghost Dance quickly drew the attention of the United States Government. Despite the peaceful nature of both the dance and it’s underlying message, it was interpreted as hostile to US interests. The government began a vicious crackdown of the dance and its various manifestations. 

This came to a head on the banks of Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in late December, 1890. Troops of the US 7th Cavalry surrounded a band of Lakota led by Spotted Elk. When some members of the band gathered for a Ghost Dance, the troops opened fire. The ensuing massacre would leave some 250 native people dead, most women and children. Some were killed miles away from the camp site. 20 of the soldiers, who had slaughtered unarmed women and children, were awarded the Medal of Honor - the nation’s highest military award.

Lakota holy man Nicholas Black Elk would later say that along with the bodies, “something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.”

The Wounded Knee Massacre is generally believed to be the end of the Ghost Dance, the death of the dream of resurrection for native peoples. For years historians argued that the violence of Wounded Knee caused Native peoples to abandon the Ghost Dance. One of the sources frequently cited in this narrative is a statement by the Navajo Nation shortly after the massacre, condemning the Ghost Dance and blaming the ceremony for giving the US cause to attack.

And.

History is always a little more complicated. The Navajo never believed in the Ghost Dance. In fact, they had specific cultural norms and practices that rejected the idea of ghosts. They were the only major tribe that never incorporated the Ghost Dance ritual into their practices. That part of the story gets left out. We love to leave out some parts of the story. That very powerful quote about lost dreams from Black Elk above? It didn’t even come from Black Elk. Those were the words of his co-author John Neihardt, the poet laureate of Nebraska at the time. Even the tragedy and pain of the native experience - the one thing that truly and uniquely belongs to them - has been co-opted by white voices.

The truth is that the Ghost Dance, and the dreams that inspired it, never died. They just went underground. Far from being separated from Native faith and practice, it became a central component. It lived on. In 1973, on the site of the original 1889 massacre, Lakota members of the American Indian Movement, led by Mary Brave Bird, performed a Ghost Dance while other members of the group led an armed occupation of the town of Wounded Knee. This occupation would result in the death of two Lakota, and the injury of a US Marshall. It also led to federal charges for the leaders, and a renewed attention to the plight of native peoples. Some things never change. The Ghost Dance was performed during the blocking of the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in 2016. It is still performed today.

Massacres and crackdowns don’t destroy faith. They don’t obviate the transcendence of touching something larger than yourself. Oppression and pain and struggle can’t kill God. Through it all, there is love. There is caring. There is a call to peace and reconciliation, and to being our best self.

The Ghost Dance lives. God’s presence lives. 

God is faith. God is love. God is hope.

And THAT is why the idea that God might not exist scares the hell out of me.

Fear #5

That none of this will get better.

Of all the things I fear, one looms above all of them. The fear that none of this will get better, that what we have now is the best it will ever be. What I am most afraid of is despair. Despair can best be understood as the loss of hope.

Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called despair the “sickness unto death.” Kierkegaard did not mean that despair alone would kill you. No one has ever spontaneously dropped dead of a lack of hope, like they might from a heart attack or stroke. In fact, the real challenge of despair is that it doesn’t kill us. As Kierkegaard explains:

(T)he torment of despair is precisely this, not to be able to die... When death is the greatest danger, one hopes for death. So when the danger is so great that death becomes one’s hope, despair is the disconsolateness of not being able to die.

In other words, when the only hope you have left is that it will all end, you are left with only despair. The sickness unto death. Hope is life. Despair is life without hope. 

I have been in despair.

Leading up to my suicide attempt in 2016, I began to believe that the world would be better off if I was dead. I felt like all I did was let everyone down. I felt like a failure as a husband, as a father, as a friend. I truly believed that the people who knew me would be happier if I was gone. The life insurance would solve money problems and everyone would finally be free of my drama, my failure, and my addictions. I would be free.

The only hope I had left was death. Despair.

Luckily, I suck at suicide.

As I have recovered from hopelessness, as I have walked the journey of healing away from despair and toward hope, I have learned that hope IS life. And hope lives in each moment of our lives. Hope is all around us.

It is easy to look at the night sky and see the wide expanses of the dark. Light only pokes through here and there. Most of the universe is cold, dark, and formless. 

And.

Once there was only darkness. The light is winning.

I am afraid of despair. I am afraid of climate change and racism, fascism and sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. I am afraid of how polarized we are and how hard it can be to talk to those who see the world differently. 

I am afraid that none of this will change. I am afraid of going back to April 16, 2016. I am afraid of despair.

And.

I have hope. I have people who love me and who I love dearly. I have learned that fear is okay. Everyone is scared of something. Fear can move us to action, it can drive change. Fear is not something to, well, fear. It is something to honor and even embrace. 

Two things can be true at the same time. Fear and hope can co-exist. 

Look at the sky. The light is winning.

May it ever be so.

As always, thank you for reading. Be well friends. If you are not a yet a subscriber and would like to get the 5 things (and a whole lot of other good stuff) during the week, I can’t encourage you enough to become a subscriber. 

See you all soon. Keep pounding the rock.