Fear

I’m reading Once There Were Wolves, by Charlotte McConaghy.

I’m terrible at book reviews, so I won’t attempt one here. Besides, I’m only two-thirds through, although I’ll finish it this weekend. Let’s just say that as literary fiction – with a murder mystery, family dysfunction and possible romance – it ticks a lot of boxes. I’m intrigued with the setting: an effort by wolf biologists to help “rewild” Scotland by reintroducing gray wolves to the landscape. The author is realistically and accurately depicting the challenges of such an endeavor, along with the benefits should it succeed.

She also is spot on when describing the reactions of the local sheep farmers to this bold experiment. Reading, I feel like I’m back in Idaho. Her characters are saying the same things I heard from neighbors there.

But perhaps most compelling, for me personally, is the main character’s mirror-touch synesthesia. I had to look it up, having never heard of it, wondering if it was real or something the author created for her character. It’s real: Mirror-touch synesthesia is a rare condition which causes individuals to experience a similar sensation in the same part or opposite part of the body that another person feels. (Wikipedia)

It’s like being a highly sensitive person (HSP) on steroids.

According to Psychology Today, A Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP, is a term coined by psychologist Elaine Aron. According to Aron’s theory, HSPs are a subset of the population who are high in a personality trait known as sensory-processing sensitivity, or SPS. Those with high levels of SPS display increased emotional sensitivity, stronger reactivity to both external and internal stimuli—pain, hunger, light, and noise—and a complex inner life.

I get it, or I think I do. I fit the description of a HSP. It’s why I burned out so easily when practicing family law. It’s why I burned out as the director of an animal shelter. So for me, the ongoing wolf controversy in Idaho, with accelerated attempts in recent years to kill them throughout the West – to get rid of them altogether – was more than I could bear. Beyond my worries about Conall being mistaken for a wolf and shot, it was knowing wolves were being killed regularly and frequently in the forest where my dogs and I sought solace and peace that was breaking my heart and sent my mind to some very dark (vengeful) places. I had to leave to survive.

Feeling that strong bond and connection to wolves is also why writing about them is so challenging for me, why I avoid and procrastinate. Given the history of man’s treatment of them, to write about them means dwelling in some horrible places.

As I think (a lot), read (e.g., Once There Were Wolves), and write (not enough) about wolves, I can’t escape considering the basic human emotion that has shaped and propelled most individual and public reaction to them (at least among Europeans, including those who came to inhabit North America) in the past few centuries: fear.

It wasn’t always that way. For a significant chunk of their common history, humans and wolves co-existed and cooperated. There was mutual respect. Some cultures (thankfully) still revere that connection.

Oxford Dictionary defines fear as an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat. That fear then causes physiological changes that may produce behavioral reactions, such as an aggressive response, or fleeing the threat. In short, the fight-or-flight response.

Fear is closely related to anxiety, which occurs because threats are perceived to be uncontrollable or unavoidable. An individual’s fears (and their resulting anxiety about not being able to control or avoid the thing they fear) are not an aspect of their nature, but are learned, shaped by their social relations and culture, telling them when and how much fear to feel, or how to react to that fear.

I first saw this in action when I moved from Washington state to Idaho in 2005. I had two Alaskan Malamutes then. In my Seattle suburb, people were eager to meet them, ask me about them, and my dogs basked in the attention. In Idaho? People were afraid, avoided us, or if brave enough, would ask me if they were wolves.

Same friendly dogs with same friendly human (me). The difference was cultural. And stark. Learned fear.

Making matters worse, in my experience, is that people fear being perceived by others as fearful – a coward, if you will – and go to great lengths to “cover” their fears.

A coward is a person who lacks the courage to do or endure dangerous or unpleasant things. (Oxford Dictionary) As a label, “cowardice” indicates a failure of character in the face of a challenge. (Wikipedia)

Who wants to be thought a coward? Especially in Western American culture, one that reveres independence, rugged self-sufficiency, and bravery in the face of danger?

Yet, in Idaho, it was fear I saw rearing its ugly head whenever the topic of wolves came up. Myths and outright lies about the supposed danger of wolves were trotted out to justify the coward’s reaction to wolves: wanting to kill them, kill them all. Kill what makes you afraid, because that’s how you control it and your fear.

Cowards go to great lengths to kill what scares them, bragging about it to those of similar mindset as a feat of manhood and courage, as if the act of killing is proof of their lack of cowardice.

Just the opposite.

I discovered that the world should be divided not into good and bad people but into cowards and non-cowards. Ninety-five percent of cowards are capable of the vilest things, lethal things, at the mildest threat.

Varlam Shalamov, Russian writer who, in 1937, was sentenced to hard labor in the Soviet gulag until his release in 1951.

What I’m still trying to work out in my mind is the relationship between cowardice and fear – same side of the coin, I think – and anger.

Is it anger that pulls the trigger when a wolf is in the cross-hairs of the coward’s high-powered rifle? Or just fear? Or a combination?

Because I’m angry. I’m angry that wolves are slaughtered – still, today, in this supposedly enlightened age, when we’re destroying the entire planet and should be doing everything possible to preserve what life remains. I’m pissed.

According to Anglo-Irish author and poet David Whyte, my anger is proof of my compassion for wolves and for nature in general.

Anger is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly about to be hurt.

…anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for. What we usually call anger is only what is left of its essence when we are overwhelmed by its accompanying vulnerability, when it reaches the lost surface of our mind or our body’s incapacity to hold it, or when it touches the limits of our understanding. What we name as anger is actually only the incoherent physical incapacity to sustain this deep form of care in our outer daily life; the unwillingness to be large enough and generous enough to hold what we love helplessly in our bodies or our mind with the clarity and breadth of our whole being.

…Anger truly felt at its center is the essential living flame of being fully alive and fully here; it is a quality to be followed to its source, to be prized, to be tended, and an invitation to finding a way to bring that source fully into the world through making the mind clearer and more generous, the heart more compassionate and the body larger and strong enough to hold it.

David Whyte

So anger – if Whyte is correct – is different than fear, because fear isn’t about caring or embracing a thing or idea. Instead, fear wants to destroy, or at least avoid.

I think, and hope, Whyte is right.

But why does fear so often lead to aggression (e.g., bullying, and killing), and is that aggression a form of anger, or something else? Cowardice? I know my anger about the treatment of wolves is a flame that compels me to advocate for them, to raise awareness. I can’t imagine ever letting that anger evolve into violence. But…?

That “but” is a theme throughout Once There Were Wolves.

I have lots of thinking yet to do.

In the meantime, some apropos quotes.

If you talk to the animals they will talk to you, and you will know each other. If you do not talk to them, you will not know them. And what you do not know, you will fear. What one fears one destroys.

Chief Dan George

We fear things in proportion to our ignorance of them.

Christian Nestell Bovee

There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.

Andre Gide

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

H. P. Lovecraft

Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.

Winston Churchill

Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.

Edward Abbey

Always in the big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the Unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into.

Wendell Berry

I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.

Toni Morrison

23 thoughts on “Fear”

  1. Whenever I’ve encountered unreasonable or unjust anger there was always some fear beneath it. The fear took a lot of different forms sometimes almost undetectable, sometimes violently obvious but always there. It’s quite different from just or reasonable anger.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I think there are many varieties of anger and not all of them have something to do with compassion. Fear and cowardice? I don’t know anyone who’s written better about that than Hemingway who describes courage as grace under pressure and makes the point over and over that only a fearful person can be brave because there is no courage without overcoming fear. Fear, for me, splits into a couple of branches — one is neurotic fear and one is legitimate fear.

    Hiking in rattlesnake country every single day the first time I encountered one I was afraid and I ran. It was funny because my dog (who was 7 mos old) got the idea that was the proper behavior around snakes and the next time she saw one she ran back to the car (same snake, same spot). Fear of rattlesnakes is a legitimate fear but how a person approaches that fear? That’s the difference, I think. I learned to live with them, to hike with a long hiking stick and “talk” to them warning them by pounding the ground as I walked. I had only ONE dangerous encounter and that was the ONE time I wasn’t able to do that and had to jump off the trail to avoid a biker. Still, I had the presence of mind to put the stick between me, my dog and the snake’s sharp end.

    To me this is what being in wild places requires. I saw hundreds of rattlesnakes over those years and watched some of them. Very wonderful animals. Similarly with mountain lions. But bears? I’m not too crazy about that since I haven’ had any experience and can no longer move quickly and must leash my dogs.

    Knowledge is the key to courage in the face of legitimate fear. Neurotic fear is irrational.

    Wolves do kill livestock but why shouldn’t they? Food is food. That said, I believe with wolves that people need to learn and adopt the “snake stick” idea which is livestock guardian dogs. I have sheep rancher friends in Wyoming who have 44 livestock guardian dogs to protect their animals at night and several llamas on day duty. It works. Their dogs are Akbash Dogs, like bear. The Akbash dog isn’t likely to engage with a wolf as other livestock guardian dogs might, but they are very likely to gang up and chase them away and they don’t leave their stock. My friends tell me that they’ve never had a problem. They have used these dogs in Europe for thousands of years. I’ve seen Bear decide that a dog coming at us is a danger to me. I can’t imagine a wolf arguing with her. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. P.S. I had two dogs killed by rattlers in my yard in the San Diego mountains. I took my dogs then to rattlesnake avoidance training and that was an object lesson in why rational fear can save an animal’s life. We’re animals. There are things we should fear. My huskies learned how to deal with the existence of rattlesnakes and Lily killed the rattler that had killed Ariel and Lupo. I wasn’t happy to see that, but it was her training. She knew it was an evil thing. She could smell it in a gopher hole (Lupo and Ariel got bit on the nose and eye sticking their heads into gopher holes) and she nailed him. That’s what she learned at “school.” But she also learned to warn me on the trail. Jasmine also.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love how you’ve built connections between cowardice, fear, and anger Becky! There are connections between those emotions/behaviours, and they all seem like negative emotions, the one that can be converted easily to positivity is anger. Anger is a fuel that propels us forward to take action against injustice, provided we harness it and use it purposefully. As you are doing through your research and writing. Delving into the dark side of it while doing your research can’t be easy. I can definitely appreciate that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right, Shelley; there is justified anger that can produce good. I try to keep my anger in that lane. I don’t like being angry, which is why reading about all the horrible things humans do to animals/wolves is so hard. I keep reminding myself, as I do my research, that I’m adding fire to my righteous anger 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That is a great post, even better than a book review, and you highlight some of the main themes in that book. Maybe anger can help drive the fight for change and gee we need that change at the moment. Enjoy the rest of the book, have you read her other novel Migrations, it also touches on environmental issues and is a great read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Sharon.

      I haven’t read Migrations, but read several reviews and thought I would get to it at some point. But of course her current book, with its title, caught my eye. I’ve now finished it, and while she’s an excellent writer and presents a compelling story, I can’t help but be disappointed in her portrayal of the “rogue” female wolf No. 10. That a wolf biologist of Inti’s passion and experience would ever believe No. 10 would be hunting humans, or writing that a wolf could remove their own radio collar…. Such details play into all the tropes and myths plaguing wolves, and even though Inti realizes her mistake eventually, I hated seeing the story even go there.

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  5. I’ve always found it ironic that the dog… man’s best friend.. is the descendant of the wild wolf man wants to eradicate. He’s a beautiful and necessary part of the eco system. Can we say the same?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My theory: many hate wolves because they naturally form strong family units, raising their young and supporting each other, with strong female leaders. It’s a high standard too many humans can’t meet or tolerate. Ironically, hunters hate wolves because…they hunt.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I understand why you had to leave Idaho. I’d love to see it someday, but I wouldn’t want to live there, either. In any community, fear, ignorance and cruelty take a toll on everyone. Ultimately your decision to leave reflected your most deeply held values.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Brad. It’s hard, loving a landscape but not the culture around it, feeling like I “gave up” on advocacy for nature and wildlife in Idaho by leaving. On the other hand, it’s hard to focus on or be an advocate when one lives among dangerous people. I’m certain I made the right choice.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I feel things too deeply, particularly about animals. I can’t watch wildlife documentaries or listen to news reports about animal abuse otherwise I brood about them for months. I actually wrote a short story set against a backdrop of rewilding a place with wolves. There is talk about it here, although we’ve only just agreed that beavers will be allowed to live in the wild again last year. More likely to come first is the reintroduction of lynx, but that’s still being talked about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. While I like all the talk about rewilding landscapes, I find it ironic that most approaches are so piecemeal. “Let’s introduce just ONE species we consider dangerous or a nuisance, see how that goes.” Nature is a network, a whole made up of interconnected, interdependent parts we barely understand. We humans have screwed around with it in such a piecemeal fashion – with disastrous results – too long. The hubris, thinking we can actually control nature or any small part of it! I know I’m speaking to the choir, Andrea, but I’ve been in a huff lately 🙂

      That book I mention in the post? I finished it. Well written, compelling plot. I’m afraid it will do little to de-mythologize wolves, though. I’m disappointed in it, in the end.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, me too (should read more Edward Abbey). Back in the ’80s a group of white water kayakers I hung with were into reading him. They loved his environmental advocacy as well as his anarchy. I just wasn’t ready then, I guess.

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  8. Oh my gosh, I love this post. As a fellow HSP, I can relate so strongly to your thoughts about the wolves and how unjustly persecuted they are. It’s really heartbreaking. The reason I write so much about insects is that they’re another group of animals that are feared and killed unnecessarily, almost reflexively and without thought. I hope to encourage people to learn more about what they fear, because sometimes that can reduce the fear. In fact, when I read your post yesterday I was in the middle of writing a post about treating phobias through exposure therapy. Your post gave me so much to think about that I’ve put mine on hold for now and may finish it later.

    I keep re-reading your David Whyte excerpt about anger being the deepest form of compassion and care…I agree wholeheartedly with that. I’d love to know which of his works that was from…I might like to read more.

    Thanks so much for caring so deeply and sharing your thoughts here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kim, your comment somehow slipped by me, so I apologize for a slow response. Thank you for your kind words!

      You’re absolutely right, reactions to insects (and reptiles) are just as reflexively negative and destructive as those toward wolves. I hadn’t made that connection. I do believe that exposure – and increasing knowledge – is the best antidote to that reflexive fear, so…we write and hope to sway one, maybe a few, away from their fear.

      Because really, who wants to live in constant fear? It’s such an expenditure of emotional and physical energy, completely wasted for most people most of the time. What’s the real danger? Virtually none, in most cases. I look forward to your piece about phobias and exposure therapy.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Here’s to hoping all the anger and frustration you have to feel now during your research will channel into your book. I know it is going to educate me and I am looking forward to being taught.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Lee, as a writer, you’re getting better all the time. Like, really good (for what my praise might be worth)! Your dialog is great, you amp up the tension, and your prose style is fun to read. Good job!

        I admit to some envy, reading about your writing experience. I got to enjoy that zone once, and I’m hoping I’ll enjoy it again soon. It’s special! Although I think I could do without characters appearing in my dreams 😉

        Enjoy the editing (just kidding, but you know how key it is)!

        Hope everything else is going well for you guys this winter. I’m beginning to grasp why people refer to Vermont winters as “harsh.” Wind. And ice. I’m missing Idaho’s dry, fluffy snow, but that’s the only thing about Idaho I’m missing.

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