A Masthead for Vagabonds, Drunkards and Saints

Fear, Ducks and Tucson

When my son was very small, I would sometimes take him to the large park near our apartment. In the spring a raft of ducks gathered around the park’s manmade lake to take their sun and entertain the suburban families with fantasies of wildness. He was no more than two, and though he was highly skeptical of my assurances that ducks didn’t bite, he would often rush into their midst in that lunging way that toddlers do, chest open, arms deployed like a polioed high-wire artist, each leg lurching forward as if worked by an amateur puppeteer. Most of the time he remained upright through forward momentum alone, which was at once comical and terrifying, since his marauding gambol always drove him towards the lake’s edge.

The very first time he flew towards the ducks, he left my side so suddenly that I didn’t realize he was gone until he had covered half the distance between my hand and the possibility of his drowning in some freakish nightly-news accident. Of course, he didn’t drown, and in hindsight, he probably made it no closer to the lake than I have been to a plane crash. At the time, however, the lake took on a menacing quality. After I scolded him for running off without warning, I turned to my parents, who happened to be visiting, and spent several minutes venting about the need for a fence around the lake, castigating the innocent and unknown landscape engineer who decided to bring a bit of life to the suburban mausoleum I called home. For about a month after that, whenever we went to the park I gave the lake a wide birth. My son would often ask for the “duckies,” with eyes the size of SETI dishes, hoping to make contact with the strange species that existed on the periphery of his imagination.

And what did I do? Well, I did what any mildly manipulative parent does when faced with a situation that frustrates and bewilders. I deployed fear disguised as reason. I asked him whether he thought the duckies liked to bite little boys. I know. I know. It sours my stomach. With a simple question I added to the ranks of boogeymen, partially closed closet doors and mirrors in the dark, the harmless duck. I succeeded in making my son more afraid of the world. A sad and unnecessary accomplishment, since there are enough hucksters of fear in this country to satisfy a pantophobic for life. His reaction was immediate. Those SETI dishes became spy satellites. He began scanning for ducks like a worm might if it had the resources. I fed the stupid nematode lurking in his brain, instead of the clever monkey, and it took the visible dimming of his natural curiosity for me to see that I had done something wrong. My irrational fear had hobbled my son.

Obviously, given the shooting in Arizona this past week, the relevance of what I’m talking about is probably pretty clear by now. And just for the record, of course the snake-oil selling opportunists who take advantage of our irrational fears didn’t make Jared Lee Loughner murder all those people. Of course not. The desperation that causes a fish to suicidally attack another fish five times its size when its territory is threatened, is the same desperation that causes all desperate people to act: hopelessness. Sometimes there’s nothing we can do about that. Sometimes people just snap, like in Tucson. It doesn’t happen very often, but it happens. Natural human empathy has a half-life like everything else in the universe, and when you get enough people together one of them is bound to undergo psychological decay–often with disastrous results. Still, as with the lake, it’s not always inevitable.

As super-sophisticated primates, we collect fears like lint screens collect, well, lint. Not only are we aware of the legitimate predators that threaten our hairless little bellies, we are aware of the invisible ones that slough off of our archetypal memories and collect in the various metaphors of evil that have long been used to hold peoples together by holding themselves apart. Our imaginary fears are worn over our real ones–that’s why they’re so powerful. It didn’t take anything but cowardice for me to scare my two-year-old son away from the ducks, because the whole episode wasn’t about the ducks; it was about the lake, and the lake was about the irrational fear of my son drowning in water two-feet deep with hundreds of people near by, which was about my, unfortunately, very rational fear of his dying. What I felt when he rushed towards the lake that day was dread, and it’s what I felt every time I went back to the lake with him to work out the fear I had so stupidly reinforced. We eventually turned duck invasion into a game–a game in which I let him lumber towards the ducks as I vectored in and swooped him off the ground a few yards from the lake, then perched him atop my shoulders and flew to safety–but I felt a flickering surge of fear each time I calculated my playful intercept.

Both my son and I were flirting with the unknown. For him, how far could he run before he was scooped up from the earth and flown to safety? And for me, how far can I run before I’m scooped up from the earth and flung into the unknown?

No, I do not want to die, and that caused me to scold my son, who was still young enough to believe in the comprehensible benevolence of God. And although every one of us knows that God or no god, the benevolence of the universe is not observable from mortal heights, it is not something to monger. We do not come by violence easily. Teaching soldiers to shoot at human beings is one of the most difficult things to accomplish in military training–at least according to the SEAL Team Six founder, Richard Marcinko. Violence requires one of two ingredients, hopelessness or the dehumanization of the enemy. Occasionally, the biochemical soup that shapes identity takes care of both ingredients, but culture can accomplish the same with only one. It is something to be wary of, this trafficking in fear. Right now it’s just laughable, these dime-store purveyors of fright, but it might not always be so.¬†We are trusting animals–indeed, all domesticated animals are–which makes it important to trust the right ones.

I am so sorry for the people in Tucson–I should have said that sooner–and the people being murdered in Tunisia, and the women forcefully circumcised all across Asia and Africa, and right now, in spite of my best efforts to tent the whole wide menagerie of man, I shun those of you who traffic in fear, because just like you, I don’t want to die; but I’d rather not create reasons to be afraid when the universe has provided us with so many.

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