The last time I spent a night enduring anything like real fear was in a tent near the edge of a remote lake in the New Mexico Rockies, curled in my sleeping bag in the late spring cold at 12,000 feet, thinking about bears.
My fear was irrational, and I knew it. My traveling companion, who has spent far more time in the backcountry than I have, hadn’t even bothered to bring bear mace. While he slept soundly, my imagination slunk into the shadows of the forest beyond our tent to eavesdrop on the harmless night, deciphering in the gossip of the wind the foreboding of a footfall or the rumor of a snuffle loud enough to override what my conscious mind knew: there was really no reason to be afraid.
What kept me awake wasn’t panic, or an incapacitating terror that might make me do something stupid. It was simply the capering demon of an old fear, summoned by atavistic sorcery using the the bric-a-brac in the cupboard of stepmother nature. It was partly a product of the bleak, snowy cirque looming above the lake, and the wind-tossed spruce groves, and the miles of uninhabited country around our camp – but it was also the ancient uneasiness that surfaces whenever we are alone, in what used to be called the out-of-doors, and which only vast experience can teach us when to ignore and when to take seriously.
I had been thinking about fear, and the degree to which we need it, in a slightly different context, ever since I mentioned in a previous post the process of losing belief in ghosts.
Then the eagle hoax video surfaced. At his blog on KCET, Chris Clarke suggested that one of the reasons for the popularity of the video – the one with the CGI raptor that sounds like a red-tailed hawk diving into a park to carry off an infant – is that, after the Newtown massacre, “we really needed to hear the older version of the story…. the version where the child is threatened by something wholly unlike us, that we need not empathize with.” The idea appeals to me. Aside from the separate issue of the challenge of empathy with a murderer, Clarke’s suggestion that the ‘older version of the story’ may in some way appeal to us is intriguing.
In a sense, we are the products of millions of years of finely engineered fear. Our hominid ancestors were hunted, and even if predation was not the leading cause of death, it was one over which a certain amount of control could be exercised. If selection favored those prone to committing Type 1 errors – false positives – and those imaginative enough to be cautious of the dark, and the tall grass, and the bush-choked ravine, then we are all to one degree or another programmed to be afraid.
I do not mean to venture off into the dubious and alarming territory of evolutionary psychology, the problems with which are nicely addressed here. I only mean that I think it safe to assert that the ancient fear of being mauled and mangled, dragged off and dismembered, treed or trapped and eaten, was once important to our survival, and has left a mark on us that other pressures have been insufficient to erase.
Now, of course, much of what we once had to fear – Pleistocene megafauna like dire wolves and sabre-toothed cats – no longer exists. Those animals that do still exist and are capable of preying on us are encountered far less frequently, even by people who spend significant amounts of their lives in the wilderness. The fear circuitry is still wired into us, but we have built for ourselves a world in which the fear that once allowed us to survive is no longer as useful as it once was.
To be sure, there are the peculiar dangers of living in a human society, and some of us do come home to find an intruder waiting in the dark, or wake to a noise that actually warns of the presence of a predator. But these are exceptions, for most of us in the developed world, and not daily threats that we need to navigate properly in order to survive. The debate over what to do to prevent another school shooting, which encompasses gun control and mental illness and parenting and human psychology in general, may in part be so acrimonious and so confusing because we are trying to learn how to deal with predators who do not set off our ancestral alarms – the alarms that we know how to respond to.
I do not at all mean that there is nothing to be afraid of in the wilderness, or that we need to be more afraid when we are among our fellow humans. I do wonder, though, after Clarke, to what degree the older fear is one that fits us better, even as we forget how to wear it. I will still have trouble sleeping on the first night of my next camping trip, and I will still pause for a moment as I open my front door when I come home, and remember Frost:
“I always have felt strange when we came home / To the dark house after so long an absence, / And the key rattled loudly into place / Seemed to warn someone to be getting out / At one door as we entered at another.”
I always suspect, when I set off down a trail, that a cougar or bear or coyote has just gotten out by another door, as it were, to avoid meeting me and the acrid offense of my backpack-humping humanity. And in some similar way nature itself, what I called stepmother nature earlier in the post, has gotten out at the back door of our society, for better or worse. Now we stand in the vestibule, wondering what to be afraid of.