The unseen hand

The Scream

“Fear is a tyrant and a despot,
more terrible than the rack,
more potent than the snake.”

Edgar Wallace
The Clue of the Twisted Candle (1916)


Let’s talk about fear.

Cold, black, 3am in the morning, skull-crushing, bowel-shaking fear.

I have had a long and intimate relationship with it. It’s the emotion that has mostly defined my adult life. Not exclusively of course. I have experienced my fare share of love and happiness, as well as the occasional less noble chords of anger and envy (but rarely hate).

But fear has been the overarching operator. The unseen hand that has guided my life journey and chiseled out my final form.

So what is this thing fear. Where does it come from. What master does it serve?

Fear is a part of all our lives to some degree. It can serve a useful purpose and undoubtedly has considerable Darwinian survival value. It can come in quite handy for preventing us from doing things of questionable evolutionary merit like jumping out of airplanes for fun or putting our heads into tiger’s mouths. People with absolutely no fear tend to be fairly thin on the ground. They either lead very exciting but very short lives, leaving a mangled but otherwise good-looking young corpse, or turn out to be dangerous psychopaths who’s lack of concern for their own mortality tends to extend for a similar casual disregard for other peoples lives as well.

Fear, I have come to understand, is inexorably linked to change. Although why that should be is a complete mystery.

Change is constant, ongoing and inevitable. The Third Law of Thermodynamics says that everything, including ourselves, is in a state of decay. The world is literally falling apart around us. The table I’m sitting at seems solid enough. But at an atomic level it is shedding mass at a prodigious rate. It’s molecules are abrading away, crumbling and decomposing back into their constituent elements. It will take a while, but in a few tens or hundreds of years it will disappear completely, as will everything else in this room. We spend much of our lives trying to fix ourselves, and our surroundings in time. We engineer an assemblage of people, things and circumstances that we feel comfortable and safe with, then devote all our energy to trying to freeze that tableaux forever. Like photograph. So that we can always be happy.

These acts of Canutean folly are pointless and doomed to failure. They are also the root of all our unhappiness. This is one of the central Buddhist teachings. The only constant is change. Nothing lasts forever. Everything passes. Both the good and the bad. Emotions. Pain. Relationships. People. Tables. Mountains. They all come and go. Get used to it. That innate dissatisfaction, or unhappiness that we call ‘the human condition’ is basically our inability to accept this simple truth.

So how we deal with change defines our relationship with fear.

If we have a lot of fear inside us, we naturally assume a defensive position. The thing that stirs our fear is change. So we try to construct a life that is static and predictable. A comfortable routine with no surprises. If you are a hermit living in the mountains, this is probably fairly simple to arrange.

I, on the other hand took my fear to the big city. Embarked on a career in possibly the most volatile, insecure and schizophrenic industry ever devised by the wit of man. One that positively feeds on novelty and change. What was I thinking? No two jobs were ever the same. Hell, no two days were ever the same. What the client loved one week, they hated the next. I had to constantly re-invent myself. I moved jobs. We moved house. Several times. We moved city. Several times. We moved country. Eventually at 40 I even changed career. Change. Change. Change.

It’s fair to say I didn’t cope very well. Trying to impose some illusion of control over this constantly evolving landscape required enormous mental energy. Every possible variable in the system had to be constantly tracked and monitored. Past scenarios reviewed to check that they came out as predicted. Future situations run and re-run as complex mental simulations, all possible inputs and interactions studied and tested to minimise the risk of an unexpected outcome. It was exhausting. This isn’t the sort of thing you can do in the shower, or over a cup of coffee. This level of control required serous effort. And a lot of time. The time that most people use for things like love, friendship, families even sleep. Especially sleep. If you spend enough time trying to control life, it turns out there’s no time left to actually live it.

Eventually I adopt a sort of siege mentality. It starts to feel like it is me against the universe. Life becomes a constant battle. Moving forward feels like wading through treacle. The constant effort required to corral people, places and things into the necessary patters to prevent any inner disturbance wears me down, and in spite of my best efforts, fear starts to get the upper hand. Panic attacks ensued. Insomnia. A constellation of unpleasant physical symptoms manifested by a body constantly awash with an unhealthy excess of adrenalin and stress hormones. Heavy drinking. Depression. Prozac. And always, in the background – even on a good day – the cold, clammy hand of fear on my shoulder.

I need to wind this up. Get to some kind of point.

So here’s the thing.

On August 1st. The day of the now infamous Brittomart Incident. I experienced my last panic attack. Since that day, I have had no fear. Not for a moment. I can’t account for exactly why. Perhaps it’s as simple as having all the accumulated pressures and uncertainties of running a business, and meeting my own and others expectations suddenly lifted. Maybe its just that finding myself with inoperable cancer is my worst fear incarnate, and thus trumps and nullifies all other fears.

Whatever the cause, all the angst and insecurity has been replaced by a new and final certainty. That while the planet will continue to turn, and the universe will keep on expanding with or without me for the foreseeable future at least, the rest of human creation will keep unravelling like bad knitting. The shit will continue to fly towards the fan in slow motion. The utter futility of trying to fight entropy is finally upon me. It’s a strangely liberating and exhilarating insight. I have a huge feeling of release and relief. The time and effort that I would otherwise be spending trying to avoid that most scary of all things, change, I can now devote to embracing and enjoying whatever life will throw at me next.

Paradoxically, when time should – if anything – be feeling short, I find I have all the time in the world. To enjoy whatever is left of my life, in a way that that old devil fear has prevented me from doing so for many years.



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  1. Jenny Le P says:

    Panic/anxiety/hypochondria my middle name/s. Everything you say is correct, I think, & reflects my own experience of this particular life.


  2. Jenny Le P says:

    Where did that “G” come from?

  3. will atkinson says:

    Great stuff! Funny how one overriding event can tilt our version of reality so fundamentally. Also interesting is your take on fear. For myself I’ve never been afraid of change. In fact I’ve always welcomed and embraced it. The only good thing Mao really preached was the doctrine constant change ( No surprises from a Chinese.) I was introduced to Taoist think from a very early age (by my best friend, who was, ironically, a devout Christain. He died of pancreatic cancer – but I know his faith helped him enormously – which just goes to prove there are no rules. But that’s for another day.)

    What I loved about taoism is the notion of balance, ying and yang. You can’t have valleys without mountains. They define each other. You can’t have wet without dry. You can’t have good without evil. The opposites are dependent on each other for their very existence.

    Then you chuck in change – as the buddhists describe it. Time is really a series of moments, which in turn are series of moments…and so on ad infinitum. Each moment exists in its own place. Yet each moment has a lasting knock on effect on the universe. Which is why the I-ching might actually be a useful tool – providing a snapshot of the universe as it is at that particular moment in the great scheme of things. Or indeed it might be hopeless hokum.

    Anyway, back to change. you can’t fight it, so you’re right, don’t bother trying. As for me, my biggest fear is the opposite- the sheer boredom of stability. Give me a revolution every day, any day. (There are down sides I’m told- like not planning for a pension – which would be worth fuck nothing anyway. Not sure I give a shit.)

    Well it’s Sunday. You’ve diverted me from work for which I thank you.

    Have I mentioned Jamrach’s Menagerie? Great book. Have I mentioned I have a degree in comparative religion. It doesn”t make me an expert, just a dilettante.

    Keep on.

  4. Jenny Le P says:

    “Entropy, entropy, they’ve all got it in for me!” paraphrased from some old Carry On film.

  5. Linds says:

    “When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backwards, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?”

    Tom Stoppard, Arcadia

  6. Linds says:

    “Entropy ain’t what it used to be.”

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