Nerds and Fear   Leave a comment

Nerds talk a lot, one way or another.  If they don’t speak, they write.  That’s annoying, because it’s often hard to get them to shut up.  And now, armed as they are with blogs and email and Twitter and Facebook and Myspace and a myriad of other venues — well, you get where I’m going with this.  More words than people on the planet, every single day.

But while not all of us are Nerds, or even nerds, one thing we all face, nerd or otherwise, is fear. Since we often do our level best not to talk about fear, why not put the nerd instinct to good use?  Resist the flow.  Be awkward, that thing nerds excel at, and talk about it.  (Along the way I get to include a Youtube link, and references to the plague, Jesus, and a medieval poem.  Good stuff — a regular pot-luck entry.)

One big fear, of course, is fear of death.  Reader, if you’ve found a sure-fire way around it, get busy marketing.  You’re set to make your fortune.  And no, I’m not talking about any Afterwards.  That’s a separate post.  I mean the process, the whole sucky thang of the roof caving in on the house, the ground floor dropping away into the basement, and the walls tumbling down. The Demolition (or Eviction, depending on your take regarding a Landlord).  The Snuff, the Blowout, the Final Exit, the Nobody Home of your life.

Have I got you thoroughly depressed, and on your weekend, too?  Sorry for that, though I won’t apologize for the topic.  If we’re going to be morbid, let’s do it right, with style and flair, and a literary reference.  Here’s your serving for the day.  There’s a well-known Middle English poem I keep coming across from time to time which partly inspired this post.  I read it in college and I’ve taught it in high school in British Lit.  Pause here for a digression — just skip the rest of this paragraph, and the next one, if you’re in an impatient mood when you read this.

Still with me?  OK. Yes, I get it — unless you’re also a fan, Middle English is next door to Old English and Beowulf and all that other stuff your high school or college English teacher inflicted on you.  Or if it wasn’t English, it was something else.  Let’s just acknowledge that at one time or another you’ve been on the receiving end of, and made to suffer for, an intellectual enthusiasm or obsession you didn’t share.  And no —  I’ve never shed the geek/nerd label since it first attached itself sometime in high school — the difference nowadays is that I make my living from it as a teacher.  It’s as if I wrote a book called Nerdiness for Fun and Profit.  Which might actually sell.  So I’ll apologize in advance for whatever my educational peers have put you through — you and my own students.

So here’s an excerpt from approximately the first half of the poem.  The spelling’s been modernized, and the few words that haven’t made it through into modern English are clear enough in context that you should be able to catch the gist without me being even more nerdy and annotating the damn thing.  But I’ll do it anyway.  And one other note:  the Latin tag in italics translates as “The fear of death disturbs me.”

In what estate so ever I be
Timor mortis conturbat me.

As I went on a merry morning,
I heard a bird both weep and sing.
This was the tenor of her talking: [substance, topic]
Timor mortis conturbat me.

I asked that bird what she meant:
“I am a musket both fair and gent; [sparrowhawk/nobly-born]
For dread of death I am all shent: [ashamed, confused]
Timor mortis conturbat me.

When I shall die, I know no day;
What country or place I cannot say;
Wherefore this song sing I may:
Timor mortis conturbat me.”

In medieval Europe death was everywhere.  People died at home, people died young, and people died from — among other things — the series of perfectly nasty plagues that swept Europe and took out a good third of the population.  Today we’ve got it easy in many ways.  Our life expectancy is twice that of the 1400s, we can usually moderate pain through medication, and many medieval diseases have been eliminated.  No, I’m not asking you to be ever so grateful and click on over to EasyDeath.com.  But what’s interesting is that the speaker of the poem isn’t concerned with pain but with uncertainty.  It’s that sense of being ambushed by an invisible assailant that adds to our fear.

There are several things to say, Druidic and otherwise, in response.  First, those who’ve had out-of-body experiences often report that they’ve lost their fear of death.  You may be one of those people yourself.  To quote Genesis (the band this time–not the book–in their song “Carpet Crawlers”), “You’ve got to get in to get out.”  Or in this case, get into other states of reality, see that this one is one among many, and that leaving this one is less of a Big Deal.  These kinds of experiences are more common than we’re lead to believe, and those who’ve had them often keep quiet about it because of the general atmosphere of fear, skepticism, and materialism that denies whole facets of human existence.  What I’ll say for victims of these mindsets is that they deserve compassion for living on the porch and never venturing into the house, never bothering to find out if there even is a house.

A powerful technique I’ve found is to send love to my fears.  I can make it a daily prayer.  If we’re worried about a difficult dying, send love to that future self which will die.  Break down the patterns of fear that sap and sabotage our present possibilities for joy.  As Jesus observed, “Perfect love casts out fear.”  And don’t worry if your love isn’t “perfect.”  Any love is a good start, an improvement on dread.  Most fear is learned.

For those of us who believe in or have had experience of other lives, the sense of deja-vu often replaces fear.  Gotta go through it all — again!

I’ll close with another citation, which I find Druidic in sensibility.  This one I ran across in school, decades back, and copied down into my journal.  The paper I’m reading from as I type this is yellowed and crinkling on the edges.   It describes a kind of initiation.  The quotation is long but I hope worthwhile for the “tough wisdom” it teaches.

The American Indian’s insistence on direct personal religious experience remains preserved when he comes into contact with Christianity:  he finds it difficult to accept experiences of the other world which are said to have happened two millennia ago and which are attested to only by a book.

An empirical attitude toward the other world is a difficult one to put into action.  It requires an emptying of the mind and the body, a humbling of the self before all other beings, “even the smallest ant.”  It is not as though the Indian [you can substitute Druid here — ADW] is “close to nature” and therefore found such an experience easier to come by than ourselves; he speaks of the journey as carrying him “to the edge of the Deep Canyon,” and he feels it as nothing less than death itself.  While he is there he sees a universe where everything is not only animate, but a person, and not only a person but a kinsman.  On his return from the journey he is reborn; he is no longer the same person he was before.  Having seen for himself the reality of the other world, he now has what William Blake called “the double vision,” as opposed to the single vision of Newton.  Alfonso Ortiz describes this double vision in the teachings of his Tewa elders, who “saw the whole of life as consisting of the dual quest for wisdom and divinity.”  It is not that the Indian has an older, simpler view of the world, to which we an Newtonian thinkers have added another dimension, but that he has a comprehensive, double view of the world, while we have lost sight of one whole dimension.

The way to his understanding is not found with the road maps of the measurable world.  One begins by finding four roads that run side by side and choosing the middle one.  The Road, once found, is cut by an impassable ravine that extends to the ends of the world.  One must go right through.  Then there is an impenetrable thicket.  Go right through.  Then there are birds making a terrible noise.  Just listen.  Then there is a place where phlegm rains down.  Don’t brush it off.  Then there is a place where the earth is burning.  Pass right through.  Then a great cliff face rises up, without a single foothold.  Walk straight through.  If you travel as far as this and someone threatens you with death, say, “I have already died.”  (Teaching of the American Earth, xx.)

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So there you have it — one of my stranger posts, oddly organized, with weird tonal shifts.  Hope you get something useful from it.  Thanks for reading.

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