The boy who wanted to know Fear.

Some post-doctoral research has recently been done titled, ‘Reconditioning the brain to Overcome Fear.   ”

How scary is that? I don’t fancy being reconditioned. I like me the way I am, warts and all , some of which has been shot at, stabbed and incarcerated. What I really hate is folk trying to get into my soft mushy parts with the AI equivalent of a monkey wrench.

We seem to have forgotten what fear is for.

A story that exemplifies this is, ‘The boy who wanted to know Fear’, or, ‘The boy who wanted to Shudder”.

A man had two sons. The eldest was smart. The youngest was supposedly stupid and made to feel the more so when he expressed as his deepest wish to learn how to shudder. His father and elder brother mock him and turn him out to seek his ‘foolish’ quest.

He spends a night beneath hanged men whom he tries to warm by his fire. He kicks the local sexton down the stairs who’d dressed up as a ghost in the attempt to frighten him. He plays with and kills ghostly cats and dogs that attack him. He plays skittles with skulls and ninepin bones. Corpses revive and try to choke him… Nothing works.

Finally he marries the king’s daughter because of all this ‘courage’. She, on the advice of her chambermaid, fetches a cold bucket of water from the stream full of tiny wriggling minnows and soaks him while he sleeps. At last he learns how to shudder.

The story suggests that there is something about fear that is necessary to human development, that to know fear is a kind of quest.

”Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.” Kierkegaard.

The obvious bit is that fear warns us of danger. It flags up our fight or flight response. It reprioritises. And if its spiders that scare its  because we’ve already ‘reconditioned’ ourselves not to be afraid of some legitimate childhood horror and  have had to crush authentic being for the sake of going-on-being, an effective strategy that manages to project and concretise undigestible experience.

Our story says that there is something essential about fear, and not just of circumstantial things, but also of objectless…

”…anxiety from below, calling out to each one of us concerning our very being. Learning to be anxious in the right way will involve coming into dialogue with this messenger.” A.S. Soderquist.

The process of growing up means an encounter with the Other, with Not-me. Both the Not-Me out there in the world and the Not-Me in ‘here’, that wells up from beneath, that informs while we sleep, that leaves its trail all through your backyard.

”He who seeks, let him not cease seeking until he finds; and when he finds he will be troubled.” Gnostic gospel of Thomas.

The plague of psychological enquiry is its insistence on trying to understand. Jung himself confessed to..

”..wanting to understand above all else.”

which, given the vastness of the Unconscious, is a bit like being captured by a fascination for cream crackers at a gourmet dinner. All in lieu of the spine tingling realisation that what you are looking for is also looking for you… and won’t be understood precisely because it transcends comprehension.

”It is the duty of the human understanding to understand that there are things which it cannot understand.” S. Kirkeggard.

Which is why characters from the bible are always in mighty dread of one form or another and Arjuna from the Bhagavad Gita begs Vishnu to hide his true face.

”When I see you touching the sky, blazing with many colours, with large fiery eyes, my heart trembles in fear and I can find neither courage nor peace. Be gracious, O Abode of the Universe.”

In the Grail legend we find Lancelot attracted to a room in the castle from which emanates a bright glow. He sees the holy vessel on a silver table, approaches too close and is scalded by a hot wind that stikes him deaf, blind and paralysed for twenty four hours.

So there is something intrinsically scary, something awe-ful, about encounter with Not-Me, and not simply because its bigger than us but because we are changed in the process.

”The hallmark of the transpersonal is that it acts upon us.” S. B-Perrera.

Our hero is not initiated into trepidation by his father, who both fails and rejects him. The contempt of this father is thinly based hostility at the boy wanting his own destiny. Its also the inheritance of a social model based on kingship where father/son relations are mared by power struggles you don’t find in societies that have chiefs.

In modern times we may not resort to the excesses of Edward the third who stuck a red hot poker up his dad’s bum, or even an Abraham willing to slit his son’s throat cos god told him to, but we have ‘lost’ the initiation of sons by their fathers which might better manage life’s fears and prevent us from approaching fear as if it were synonymous with illness.

I went to see my analyst once, shoulders hunched and all sorry for myself, ”I feel so disillusioned, ” I proclaimed. He hesitated a bit and then said, ‘..but that’s a good thing.”

Learning the meaning of fear is essential to resolving any narcissistic adaptation. Fortunately for our hero he realises this and goes looking in the world for what his father cannot provide.

The DSM specifically mentions this curious absence of fear in the Narcissistic personality. The reason is that the Narcissist hasn’t yet had the initiatory encounter with Otherness. Everything is an extension of his world. So there is no loss, abandonent or death. He has yet to experience what Fordham calls ‘de-integration’, the structural unbundling of the Self that is encounter with any altering Other. Jung was fond of saying that good therapy is when the analyst is changed as well….

Our hero does not learn how to shudder from his own efforts. He’s even asleep at the time. But his longing to discover the secret brings him into relatedness with his wife and the ‘Nursemaid’ who sees what is needed and kindly rains on his parade. This sudden awakening is rude and unexpected. It can’t be otherwise since what’s at stake is a paradigm shift in consciousness from self-as-centre to being one-amongst-many, the psychological equivalent of Galileo’s shock that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around.

Such realisations are bound to be resisted even while we do our best to enquire into them because of the ground breaking consequences to our perception of reality that is involved. So if you feel stuck you might cut yourself a little slack. Growing is a scary business.

And anyway what could two PhD’s in Engineering and Telecommunications do with research that suppressed fear? I mean, other than weaponise it….

How scary…




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Psychotherapist/writer/artist/ author of, 'Going Mad to Stay Sane', a psychology of self-destructiveness, about to come into its third edition. Soon to be printed for the first time, 'Abundant Delicious.. the Secret and the Mystery', described by activist Satish Kumar as, ' A Tao of the Soul'. This book documents the archetypal country through which the process of individuation occurs and looks at the trials and tribulations we might expect on the way. In the meantime..... Narcissisim is the issue of our age. This blog looks at how it operates, how it can damage and how we may still fruit despite it.

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