John Lennon said, “There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer.”
The usual perception of fear is that it leads to inaction — the pulling back from life that Lennon speaks of. Psychologists and self-help experts have filled pages to help us overcome fear.
Fear is one of our most primal instincts. It is caused by a part of our brain called the amygdala and is our foremost self-preservation tool. If we did not fear we would not survive. What we call fearlessness is not the absence of fear, but the channeling of fears into action.
One can propose that all development of human society springs from fear. Fear of mortality led to the invention of vaccines, cures and development of medical equipment. Fear of loss of property and life led to the architecture of castles, walled cities and houses. Banking systems protect one’s wealth. Fear of invasion led to the creation of armies and weaponry. Fear of injustice established legal systems and legislation, the social contract and formulation of human rights. Fear of ignorance established educational systems. Fear of social rejection motivates keeping up with fashions, going to the gym, knowing the latest slang, viral tweets and music charts. Conversely, fear of losing one’s cultural identity ensures the transmission of social customs, traditional values, classical music and literature.
Fear is used to control people. Exploiting fear makes money, whether it’s marketing or breaking news. Electioneering campaigns focus on fear and mistrust of the opposition. The journalist H. L. Mencken said, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed.”
Fear is a complex emotion reflected in the many nuanced words in different languages. The Latin ‘timor’ represented fear of God; the French word ‘panique’ derives from the Greek god Pan who took pleasure in suddenly appearing and frightening travellers. The Quran describes 10 forms of fear: Khawf, Khashyah, Khushoo’, Taqwa, Hadthr, Raa’a, Wajas, Wajl, Rahb and Wajf ranging from being startled to awe and reverence.
Fear makes a person alert and therefore aware, observant and analytical — qualities essential for planning and problem-solving. A Japanese proverb reminds us “fear blows wind into your sails.” Fear is the great inventor. The underling impetus for science, philosophy and religion is the desire for clarity and emancipation from fear.
In the midst of all this feverish activity to allay anxiety, is the quiet ability of the arts to help us confront and manage our fears. The arts don’t offer solutions. They help us sublimate and provide a safe vantage point to acknowledge our emotional responses. A Stephen King novel can be put back on the shelf after it has made our hearts race with fear. We can step out of the cinema after watching a horror movie. Actors immerse themselves in portrayals of dark souls, serial killers, domestic abusers, megalomaniacs, assassins and gang members. Shakespeare’s dark tragedies give us insight into the tragic consequences of the impulsiveness of Romeo, the procrastination of Hamlet, the ambition of Macbeth and the misjudgment of King Lear.
Michelangelo helps us imagine the day of judgement, Goya the horrors of war, Edvard Munch the silent scream of panic, George Grosz the corruption of society and the Surrealists our darkest nightmares. Pakistani artists have boldly presented the conflicts, hypocrisies, anxieties, inequalities and suffering endured by Pakistanis as have the Sufi poets, the ghazal khwans, musicians and filmmakers. The arts do not avoid the fearful, but move towards it. By containing what is fearful in an aesthetic structure, they create the space for the viewer, listener or reader to acknowledge what would otherwise be too painful to experience.
Rumi urges us: “Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down the dulcimer.”
Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 5th, 2020