I’m starting to think it’s possible that fear is the root of all evil.
Semantic discussion of the religious implications of evil aside, I have seen people twist themselves in knots in fear. Fear of pain, hurting someone else, or seeing something unlovable in themselves. Fear of seeing themselves as they truly are, as if it’s something unimaginably horrid. As if seeing ourselves in all our history and present is worse than death.
Around racism and privilege in particular, I have seen this fear manifest as (sometimes incredibly skillful) avoidance. From often vague and lofty claims of colorblindness, to interpersonal conflicts and competition among white people that are misplaced – if not entirely created – to avoid even talking about talking about racism.
I’m struck in particular by one dichotomy I’ve witnessed. On the one hand, it’s generally accepted when talking about and exploring white privilege and racism, it’s up to white people to do their own work. Part of White Privilege 101 is that it is not okay to ask a person of color to teach us about racism and oppression, both because one person can’t be asked to represent an entire group and because it’s not their job to educate us about our shit. And privilege and racism is definitely our shit. White people also add that they would likely not be as honest about their own racism with a person of color in the room. On top of that, people will question someone of color who is willing to lead or facilitate a discussion with white people on privilege, wondering about where they are with their own internalized racism and having genuine concern about the re-wounding of a person of color in that role. On the other hand, I get a strong message from people of color and other marginalized groups – and throw off the same signal in groups where I am marginalized – that if you are trying to be an ally to me and protect me from your -ist bullshit at the same time, then you have seriously underestimated me. The notion that we can decide what other people can handle around their oppression seems to be a privileged one, and one that meets with lots of resistance.
To further confuse myself, I have started reading James Baldwin. (If you know me and you know Baldwin, you’re right to be scared. I blame Joshua.) From No Name in the Street:
If Americans were not so terrified of their private selves, they would never have needed to invent and could never have become so dependent on whey they still call “the Negro problem.” This problem, which they invented in order to safeguard their purity, has made of them criminals and monsters, and it is destroying them; and this not from anything blacks may or may not be doing but because of the role a guilty and constricted white imagination has assigned to the blacks.
There’s a lot said in Buddhism about being fully present in the moment, and fear seems to be the antithesis of being present. I think fear has a lot of anticipation of what’s next in it.
There’s a well-known Zen koan about a man chased by a lion over a cliff. Clinging to a vine for his life, he sees a tiger below him, waiting to eat him, while the tiger that chased him is just above him on the cliff. To add to the peril, there are mice gnawing at the vine he is clinging to. In the midst of all of this, when his fear should be at its highest, he sees a strawberry near him. He lets go of the vine with one hand to grab the strawberry and eat it and enjoys how wonderful and sweet it is.
I’m told the opposite of fear is love. I’m tempted to wax poetic about how the world would be so much better if we could love ourselves enough to love one another enough to vanquish fear, but that’s too corny and optimistic for even me. But if we could place love – or being in the moment – where fear comes up, I wonder how the conversation would change.