At its core, Samhain is about the night when the old God dies and the crone Goddess mourns him deeply for the next six weeks. The popular image of her as the old Halloween hag stirring her cauldron comes from the Celtic belief that all dead souls return to her cauldron of life, death and rebirth to await reincarnation.
Despite efforts by the Christian church to recast the sabbat, or seasonal festival, by turning it into a day of feasting and prayer for saints (All Hallow Eve, preceding all Saints Day, is still one of the holiest days in Catholicism), Samhain lore and practice remained popular and the church was forced to diabolize it as a night “boiling with evil spirits.”
Masters of cultural blending, the church declared that the evil spirits were dispelled only the ringing of church bells on All Saints Day. Although terror has nothing to do with this pagan holiday, the idea of Samhain being a night of unleashed evil took hold in the collective mind.
The affect of this unfortunate misinterpretation is that a great opportunity to reflect on life and death, on the endless cycle of seasons, and ultimately, on confronting and overcoming that which frightens us, has become lost. Halloween has become an extremely commercial holiday, second only to Christmas in decorating and candy sales, or a celebration of the macabre, leading to fearful rejection by religiously conservative groups, or wanton abandon by those happy to unleash their versions of the hounds of hell.
Very few people however, seem to take the opportunity Halloween presents to face our fears, which is interesting – or maybe understandable — America appears to be one of the most frightened places on earth. According to a NY Times poll in 2006, nearly half of Americans feel “somewhat uneasy or in danger.” Compared with five years previous, 39% of Americans said they feel less safe now, while only 14 % said they feel safer.
While there don’t seem to be any exact figures, turn on the television at almost any given time, and it’s clear that there’s been an increase, in recent years, in the number of crime dramas and crime related news coverage. We’ve got show like the venerable America’s Most Wanted reminding us that violent predators are loose in every city; CSI solving dramatic murders in at least three states; 20/20, PrimeTime and 48 Hours, with their companionable reporters warning us, with great concern for our well-being, about scams, crooks and thugs of every variety; and horrific slasher films, available on cable, right in our own homes and enhanced with the best blood-letting computer graphics to bring it all home.
In the early 1990s, there was a dramatic increase in the public perception of crime as the most important problem facing the country – 52% of Americans, in 1994, felt that crime was of utmost concern. Based upon data from 1978 through 1998, results suggest that this “big scare” was more a network TV news scare than a scare based upon the real world of crime. The television news alone accounted for almost four times more variance in public perceptions of crime as our most important problem, than did actual crime rates, which – believe it or not – have actually gone down in the last fifteen years.
Yes – down: For the 10-year trend, from 1996 to 2005, the FBI reports that violent crime declined nearly 18%. Murder decreased 15% in 2005 compared to 1996. In this same time period, robbery offenses decreased 22%. Even motor vehicle theft decreased, down more than 11% in 2005 compared with 1996.
So just what are we so afraid of? If you’ve managed to avoid the crime scare, modern media has some other worries for you: How about dying in an airplane accident? Getting cancer from …well, anything at all? Virulent breeds of superbugs resistant to every known antibiotic? Food safety? Organ trafficking? Killer bees? Having your child kidnapped? Hooked on drugs? Or finding a razor blade in their Halloween candy? Lead in toys?
For what it’s worth, the Halloween razor blade thing never happened, and most of those other concerns are overblown as well. Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear (Basic Books, 2000), calls these “pseudodangers”, and says the media, advertisers, politicians and various companies and organizations thrive on them and the money (or votes, which ultimately translates to money) that your fears bring them. Pseudodangers, suggests Glassner, represent an opportunity for us to avoid facing problems head-on. Rather than address – or perhaps, better said, because of our inability to address — poverty, we fear the criminals that poverty can create. Our inability to address foreign policy issues renders us terrified of terrorism.
“In just about every contemporary American scare,” says Glassner, “rather than confront disturbing shortcomings in society, the public discussion centers on disturbed individuals.”
Our fears, however, are often far worse than our realities.
According to John Meuller, the Woody Hayes Chair of national security policy and professor of political science at Ohio State University, we’re suffering from a national false sense of insecurity.
“Until 2001,” he writes, ” far fewer Americans were killed in any grouping of years by all forms of international terrorism than were killed by lightning, and almost none of those terrorist deaths occurred within the United States itself. Even with the Sept. 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts.”
Further, Meuller noted that transportation researchers at the University of Michigan calculated than “an American’s chance of being killed in one nonstop airline flight is about one in 13 million (even taking the Sept. 11 crashes into account). To reach that same level of risk when driving on America’s safest roads — rural interstate highways — one would have to travel a mere 11.2 miles.”
Driving is, in fact, one of the most dangerous things we do, and yet most of us are quite willing to accept that risk. Author Bruce Schneier, in Beyond Fear (Springer, 2nd edition 2006), observes that, “In America, automobiles cause 40,000 deaths every year; that’s the equivalent of a full 727 crashing every day and a half — 225 total in a year. As a society, we effectively say that the risk of dying in a car crash is worth the benefits of driving around town. But if those same 40,000 people died each year in fiery 727 crashes instead of automobile accidents, you can be sure there would be significant changes in the air passenger systems. Similarly, studies have shown that both drivers and passengers in SUVs are more likely to die in accidents than those in compact cars, yet one of the major selling points of SUVs is that the owner feels safer in one.”
Many of our fears, of late, involve children – everything from being afraid for them to being afraid *of* them. Surveys have found that kidnapping tops parents’ list of concerns for their children. Yet the biggest safety issue for kids is basic simple safety measures in homes and public places. The risk of kidnapping by strangers remains incredibly small – under 1% of the nation’s more than 64 million children are seized by non-family members and actually returned. A far smaller number die.
And those killer Columbine type kids? They’re statistically almost non-existent. 80% of our nation’s counties never experience a juvenile homicide.
But are things getting worse? “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know, “said Harry Truman.
“A new army of 6 million men are being mobilized against us, an army of delinquents. Juvenile delinquency has increased at an alarming rate and is eating at the heart of America,” declared a Juvenile court judge – in 1946.
There are “predatory beasts” on the streets, hordes of teens and preteens running wild in city streets, “gnawing away at the foundations of society,” said a commentator – in the 19th century. In 1850 in New York alone, there were more than 200 gang wars fought mostly by teenage boys.
The youngest American ever executed for murder was 12 years old. She killed the baby in her care – in 1786.
So how did we get so scared? Our fears, suggests Glassner, are carefully and repeatedly fed by anyone who wishes to create fear, often by manipulating words, facts, news, sources or data, in order to induce certain personal behaviors, justify governmental actions or policies (at home or abroad), keep people consuming, elect certain politicians, or distract the public’s attention from allegedly more urgent social issues like poverty, social security, unemployment, crime or pollution. The most common techniques for social haunting include:
- Careful selection and omission of news (some relevant facts are shown and some are not); (reporting that the number one problem teachers faced in 1940 was talking and gum chewing, and in 1990, pregnancy, suicide and drug abuse; distorted from a National Center for Education Statistics survey inquiring with principals, not teachers, about crimes – when actually asked, teachers today site problems parent apathy and lack of text books as their biggest problems)
- Distortion of statistics or numbers (declaring 800,000 children missing each year, but failing to break those statistics down meaningfully)
- Transformation of single events into social epidemics; (going “postal” isn’t a postal service epidemic – that remains one of the safest occupations)
- Corruption and distortion of words or terminology according to specific goals;
- Stigmatization of minorities, especially when associated with criminal acts or degrading behavior;
- Generalization of complex and multifaceted situations;
- Causal inversion (turning a cause into an effect or vice-versa).
None of this is to suggest we shouldn’t be cautious or aware or concerned, that we shouldn’t be proactive in caring for ourselves or our children, and taking normal precautions for health and safety. But simple things like wearing seatbelts and washing hands will do more to protect you than refusing to talk to strangers or carrying a gun.
“To fear is one thing,” says author Katherine Paterson, who wrote Jacob Have I Loved (HarperTrophy, 1990). “To let fear grab you by the tail and swing you around is another.”
Nobel Prize Laureate Bertrand Russell, a British philosopher, logician, essayist and social critic, suggested, in 1950 when we were dealing with all sorts of still familiar concerns, there are two ways of coping with fear:
“… one is to diminish the external danger, and the other is to cultivate Stoic endurance. The latter can be reinforced, except where immediate action is necessary, by turning our thoughts away from the cause of fear. The conquest of fear is of very great importance. Fear is in itself degrading; it easily becomes an obsession; it produces hate of that which is feared, and it leads headlong to excesses of cruelty. “
In “We are Not Afraid,” Homer Hickam, author Rocket Boys (Delta, 2000) (which was made into the film, October Sky) , drew on his experiences growing up in the brave and resilient community of Coalwood, West Virginia, a town were the threat of death was constant, but fear was not. He said Coalwood residents take a four pronged approach to fearlessness that he sums up in something like a set of mantras:
- We are proud of who are
- We stand up for what we believe
- We keep our families together
- We trust in God but rely on ourselves
Hickam also says something profoundly Buddhist early in his book. He says that despite the ills of our society, we largely live among compassionate, kind and optimistic people who are striving to do good. “As an American,” he says, in a line that would make the Dali Lama proud, “you have a duty to be happy. It says right there in our Declaration of Independence that we have god given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So do your duty. Learn how to be happy and keep this in mind: You can’t be happy unless you stop being afraid.”
Senator. John McCain (R-Ariz.) puts it less poetically: “Get on the damn elevator! Fly on the damn plane! Calculate the odds of being harmed by a terrorist! It’s still about as likely as being swept out to sea by a tidal wave. Suck it up, for crying out loud. You’re almost certainly going to be OK. And in the unlikely event you’re not, do you really want to spend your last days cowering behind plastic sheets and duct tape? That’s not a life worth living, is it?”
Fear, Hickam says, is mostly a habit.
“The habit of fear and dread,” he writes, “can be compared to having a chronic disease. Some of us have gotten so used to having it, we don’t even know we’re infected. A symptom of this disease is that we walk around with slumped shoulders and drag one heavy foot after another. We dread getting out of bed in the morning, certain that only awful things are going to happen when we do. We never have anything good to say about anything, and that includes ourselves. We don’t like the way we look. We feel victimized. We’re envious of others and assume the world is filled with meanness. In fact, we think the world is a terrible place. We moan and groan. We eventually lose our family and friends. We become sorry sights and we don’t even know why. Worse, the disease we have is infectious. Innocent people we encounter are susceptible to catching fear and dread from us, including our children. We know something’s wrong, but we don’t know how to be cured.’
One way to rid yourself of this infection, says Hickam, is to “stand up straight and ….be proud of who you are.” To do that, he says, it’s necessary to know who you are, and how you’re connected to your family and your community. That involves talking to family members, to community members – and passing their stories on to your children and other family members. To be unafraid, you have to be connected to something larger than yourself, says Hickam.
The habit of fear and dread also causes timidity, says Hickam, a tendency to avoid confrontation, especially in defending our opinion. That one’s probably not quite as big an issue here for us – we have lots of opinions and fling them around easily here. But how about “out there”? “If you act as if what you think isn’t important, it’s the same as believing *you* aren’t important,” writes Hickam. “An attitude like that can squeeze the life right out of anybody.”
One of the best ways to overcome that aspect of fear and dread, he says, is “to take up for those who can’t take up for themselves.”
“There’s always someone who needs you help. How can you be afraid if you’re the protector of someone else in a dangerous world? Sometimes, just acting brave is enough to make you brave. “
But there’s more to it than just faking it till you make it. Hickam says you should also teach that person to stand up for himself, too, so that he can keep his dignity. Hickam cautions that standing up for what you believe “does not mean that every time you feel you’re being slighted, you should erupt with loud, hateful behavior. Standing up for what you believe has nothing to do with being violent or being obnoxious because of some perceived oppression. This attitude ahs to do with a quiet determination to have your opinion explained and heard. To be effective, it also has to be respectful and fair. … The most effective way of standing up is always going to be the nonviolent way, quiet but determined.”
Keeping our families together can actually be one of the harder tools for fearlessness, observes Hickam, but it’s a vital one. “An intact, functioning family works to not only provide a loving refuge, but also fills in the cracks of our own personalities. Where one family member is weak, another is strong. A cohesive group is always stronger than an individual, no matter how smart he is, or how many muscles he ahs or anything else. The family can be a shield against the world, and also the springboard to a better life.”
And finally, Hickam says trusting God but relying on yourself is a sure way to rise above fear. “The people of Coalwood were against calling on God any time they needed help,” he recalled. “For one thing, it was considered impolite. God had a lot of things to worry about after all, without including everything that got in the way of one particular human being. The way folks in the town saw it, God had already provided them with most of what they needed to get past a scrape, including their own good common sense.” Mostly, he said, they reserved their prayers for thanks.
While others often ponder why bad things happen to good people, Hickam ponders something he says as more amazing: “Why, in a universe and a world where everything must work hard to simply survive, did that which we think of as decent and fine get embedded into our souls? Why is that we crave goodness, seek out honesty and strive to be honorable, even when evil is so much easier? How is that evil, the desire to destroy and hurt others, hasn’t been the driving force in our species and our world and our universe? Some great goodness is out there, and it’s here, too. It is everywhere.”
We’re two parts, says Hickam, “one spiritual and the other physical. Both are important. The design of the human body and mind is evidence of that great truth. We have to trust in the spirit that is everywhere around us and in us. But we also must use our hands and minds to keep our families safe and build a better world.”
A world in which we are not afraid.
“We are not afraid.”
Say it slowly, and savor it, says Hickam, like we should savor the world and each moment. This sacred time of year honors the timeless changes of our lives, and offers us a rare opportunity to look death in the eye and give it a wink and a nod.
“There is no reason to fear life or dread what might be coming your way,” writes Hickam. “Every hour of every day, recall all the people who came before you, all those who make up who you are, and stand tall and be proud. No matter how perilous the times, they will always be with you…”
Bertrand Russell would agree. “We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world,” he said. ” — its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. …We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face. We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages. A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time toward a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create.”
As Samhain reminds us, death is not an end, but a transition, a time to look forward to new beginnings, when we will be born anew as the wheel of the year turns on and on.
And there is nothing to be afraid of.