The month of Hallowe’en is upon us, the time when we start to think about the roots of this holiday, and its traditional theme of fear.
Is there, as Roosevelt once said, nothing to fear but fear itself?
There are certainly many troubles in the land, from war and rumors of war, terrorists, economic fears, nuclear concerns, genetically-modified food, electronic surveillance and a government that’s no longer trusted by its people. Lots to fear, right?
Well, perhaps Roosevelt was right. Fear is not the best method for handling a troublesome world. But if not fear, how does one respond to a world whose seams are unraveling? Is there hope in the Hallowe’en season?
When I think of my ignorance of childhood, I realize that my fears drove me. Sometimes that was a good thing, and sometimes not. Fear kept me away from certain people, and away from certain neighborhoods. Fear got me into trouble, but it also kept me out of trouble because of fearing the consequences of what I was contemplating doing.
Hallowe’en is one of our ancient commemorations. Its roots go back to the ancient Celts, who had six significant fire ceremonies during the year, one of which was Samhain, the last day in October. (Originally, Samhain was celebrated from October 31 through November 2). The Feast of Samhain (meaning “summer’s end”), marked both their Feast of the Dead and the Celtic New Year. This time of the year, half way between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, was a time of decay and death on the earth. This was especially apparent in Western Europe, when the temperatures dropped and the rains fell. Take a walk in the woods or fields and you smell the decay of rotting leaves and fungus. Samhain ushered in the darkest and most barren time of the year. It was a time when the spirits of the recently departed – as well as other disincarnate entities -- were believed to be out and about, with easier access to humans. There was much to fear, no?
Back in the day when there were no modern technological wonders, no Federal Reserve and central banking, no modern drugs and Obamacare, no IRS and no ATMs, people built huge fires and even fire sacrifices the belief that they’d protect the crops and flocks from demonic influence.
Historically, Hallowe’en had to do with the dead, with ghosts, with spirits.
The practice of putting food out to appease the ghosts so that they’d go back to their ghostly realms has morphed into children and adults dressing up unwittingly as the proxies of the ghosts and spirits, and threatening tricks if no treats are given.
It may seem like an ignorant way to deal with fears, but it likely seemed very pragmatic way back when.
I feared the darkness as a child, and the things that lived under my bed and in the closet. I feared the creatures that peeked in my window at night and the boogie man who roamed our streets. As I grew older, I feared police and authority, and the inexplicable “establishment” and the abstract evil people.
Perhaps I was lucky in finding a way to deal with my fears. As a long-standing Halloween tradition, the folks at the Los Angeles-based non-profit WTI [www.wtinc.info] showed me that to conquer your fears, you must identify them, face them, and go into them. This was done in various ways, sometimes by watching and discussing an insightful movie, such as Nosferatu , both the original and the 1978 Klaus Kinsie version. We gathered with large bowls of popcorn, and other refreshments, and explored the nature of fear. We remained focused on finding the science within that movie as to how to deal with our own inner fears.
Additionally, “Nosferatu” provides a pictorial view of how each of us succumb to our weaknesses, and how we “become someone else.” There’s no need to couch any of this in religious terms, or guilt. We looked at the movie as a symbolic depiction of one of the ways in which our world actually operates. We looked at the movie as a symbol for our daily life, and we explored the many ways in which we should protect ourselves from the myriad “bloodsuckers” that seem to surround us in modern life.
It occurred to me, in retrospect, that I faced and overcame fears in my own ways too. As I child, there was the day I forced myself to look under the bed. Wow! Nothing was there, and I went back to sleep. There were the days when I forced myself to confront the older boys who I thought were thugs or criminals. Lo and behold, they had their own fears and insecurities, and weren’t that different from me. I learned, as Peter Suzuki has taught us, that once we begin thinking we may discover that what we thought was an enemy is actually a friend.
Fears exist in the abstract, and they stay alive if we keep them there. If we identify the fear, we can take some action to deal with it, and by so doing, we discover a greater part of ourself, and we discover a new part of the world, and we might even make a new friend.