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3:AM in Lockdown 38: Brian Thill

Four Types of Fear
By Brian Thill.

Three types of fear were already so familiar before all of this that you might almost forget they’re very different from one another. The first kind of fear is the feeling some of us have when we consider the immense void of time and space, the staggering immensity and cold indifference of the universe outside ourselves, the abyss of meaning, the existential dread that suffuses us when we recognize that we are less than specks in the cosmic scale of things, the fact that before we are dust once more we are already less than dust; and the fear attached to this terrible feeling issues from the mismatch between our sense of ourselves as having value and meaning and significance, and the compendium of evidence arrayed on the other side that indicates that this sense of ourselves cannot be right. The vertigo this gulf creates in us is made worse the more highly we regard ourselves, our thoughts, and our lives. For those of us burdened with an elevated or grandiose sense of self, this fear alone can be utterly catastrophic.

But many of us who’ve peered down into that well awhile have developed a certain equanimity about all of it. As we get older and the responsibilities of the world weigh us down, they also anchor us to a less indulgent horror of the self alone in the endless void of unmeaning, and so (at least for some of us) that cosmic dread perhaps begins to recede from consciousness. And if in later years we try to summon the memory of that feeling of dread it is no longer quite as appalling as it once seemed; or if it is, we have by that point learned a thing or two about how to distract ourselves from thinking too much about it; or we have replaced those concerns with other nobler ones; and so the fear flickers and dims, and we return to some form of life.

The second form of fear can also take hold early in life, depending on one’s circumstances. For those of us who grow up struggling under the grinding weight of poverty, who were raised in conditions that were economically fragile and precarious, we may have from an early age been acquainted with this other form of fear. It is the fear the worker feels when she is no longer able
to work; or has lost her job, or fears losing her job; or who retains her job but still can’t afford to feed her children; or who has to spend each day deciding whether to feed her children or pay her electrical bill, or put gas in the failing car; or find somewhere somehow more affordable to live. Unlike existential dread, this fear is grounded completely in the blistering material conditions of everyday survival. The fear of losing one’s home, one’s job, one’s income, one’s health, one’s opportunities is oppressive and inescapable; and this fear deforms one’s spirit, it weighs you down each night and every morning, it infects your thoughts and values and ideas about everything; it peels away one’s dreams and hopes and replaces them with the thin gruel of bare
subsistence. And the problem with the type of fear this generates deep in the hearts and stomachs of all who suffer it is that it threatens to be endless; it promises only a life sentence of penury and destitution. It makes it difficult to find a good way to go on with life each day, so that life becomes about others, or about mere survival; meanwhile you are beaten and bloodied under the lash.

If you’re lucky in this life you will have been spared too many of the anxieties of existential dread, and if you’re very lucky you may also have been spared the fears that keep you out of the doctor’s office; or find you in your car frantically watching the gas-tank slash creep ever closer to Empty; or have you scraping the mold from old bread and leaving the parts that appear to be a little safer to devour; or doing without sleep, or food, or a comfortable bed. But most of us will never be that lucky, and meanwhile most of us have a third type of fear that we carry with us every hour of the day. It is not the fear of one’s own imminent and meaningless demise, nor is it the panic that assails us as we try to pay our bills and stay afloat for another month, another week, another day. This third fear is for others: the loved ones whose welfare means as much or more to us than our own life and health. The fear a parent has for their child, from the moment their child is born until the end of time; the fear a grown child has for his ailing parent, or his ailing partner; the fear any of us who love other people have that something bad might happen to them, that they will be deprived of joy or freedom or happiness or health or a good long life or love or a thousand other things we wish for them. We would welcome additional suffering for ourselves if we could somehow spare them any sorrow, any loss, or any pain, even when we know that loss and pain are universal, and inescapable.

There have been many sorrows in this world; and there has been incredible injustice, grief, malice, and suffering too, much of it avoidable, if we had only endeavored to make a strong and loving world, rather than a world built on immiseration, exploitation, cruelty, and pain. But this virus, at least for some of us, has introduced or reacquainted us with a fourth type of fear, one in which all of the special dreads and terrors of the other three mingle and coalesce. For some of us, there is something particularly dreadful in its global scale, its indifference to polemic and platitude, its unevenly distributed devastation. Its microscopic invisibility combined with its relentless pursuit of the same impulse that drives so many of us — this impulse to persist — is as potentially distressing as that old feeling some of us might have felt staring into the fire, or gazing too deeply into the starry sky, or pondering for too long the colossal vastness of time, until we begin to feel our own sense of self fray at the edges.

At the same time, we can already feel it piercing a hole in our daily lives, and we can see and feel our hopes, our professions, our homes, our ways of life leaking out into an inky darkness. We can already experience the ways it has decimated the meager funds we held, and savaged the safety nets even the luckiest among us had managed to weave. We can feel the future and our sense of normalcy and our grand plans withering and bleaching under the heat of this new sun. And while we are trying to adapt and survive both of these, the virus is already creeping closer and closer to those we love. Like a crowd watching a wave slowly roll in toward the shore, we can monitor its slow and implacable progress. The wave is rolling in. Some of us will flee; others of us will be drenched. But the biggest fear of all is that some of us, whose names and hearts and faces we have known so well, will almost certainly drown.


First posted: Saturday, April 18th, 2020.

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  1. […] * Four types of fear. […]

  2. […] I’m honored to report that 3AMMagazine has just published an essay of mine on living in this time of the virus. It’s called “Four Types of Fear,” and you can read it here. […]

  3. […] We accumulate our own losses. Our losses gather us. […]