What World Do You Live In?

 In Sustainability Leadership
West Bank
Photo by Mark Spokes

The danger at hand

I had just sat down this morning to write some thoughts about hope when a barrage of gunfire rang out close by. I jumped up and scanned across the landscape, but the echoes around the valley made it difficult to locate the origins of the shots. I was stood in the same spot where, a few days ago, I had seen the trails of a rocket fired from Hamas out of Gaza. And then I spotted the flashes. About a mile away at the border separating the Israeli settlement from the surrounding Palestinian areas. As had become a morning routine over the past week, I picked up my phone to find a Twitter feed that might shed some light on the situation. As the shots continued in the distance, I picked up reports of violent clashes over night around the area where I had spotted gunfire. News sources also confirmed that Israeli Defense Forces had arrested/kidnapped (depending on the affiliation of the media outlet) a local Palestinian legislator in that vicinity. I scrolled through more tweets about shots being fired across the West Bank in Bethlehem and Ramallah. I had started to get used to the sound of car horns that fill the air in this part of the world, but there seemed to be more commotion outside than usual. Perhaps, these were the first signs of an uprising that locals had either warned us about or dismissed as unlikely.

To see the gunfire actually brought some comfort. No doubt, there are many of you who feel comfort, for example, when spotting the large spider again after losing it when it disappeared beneath a chair. It is worse not to know where the “danger might come from”. Arne Öhman describes anxiety as an unresolved fear; anxiety arises when we do not have the relief that comes from facing a tangible threat that can be dealt with. As the stoic philosopher, Seneca, suggested: “A person’s fears are lighter when the danger is at hand.” It is perhaps not surprising considering the way our brains are wired to react. The amygdala (the “alarm system” of our brain that evolved for survival) recognises a dangerous situation and puts us on alert by triggering the hypothalamus to produce cortisol. The calm is only restored when we see the bigger picture without danger and the hippocampus signals a stop to the production of cortisol. However, on identifying a clear and immediate threat the amygdala also triggers the release of endorphins. The threat becomes a thrill.

A culture of anxiety

The thrill of fear is vital for survival, according to political theorists like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. It prevents passivity in the face of danger. But living in a threatening environment creates a general condition of anxiety that can wear people out. We do not have to travel to dangerous hotspots to find such hostile environments. I have spent the past few years working for an organisation that maintains a culture of anxiety through lack of job security. Various pressures of the modern world leave many people feeling insecure. Alexis de Tocqueville warned that this only prepares people to give up their freedom to anyone who can bring them relief with a guarantee of security. They are more readily mobilised into supporting actions against anyone identified as a threat or standing in the way of alleviating their own vulnerability.

Modern states can use a culture of anxiety to manage populations. This deliberate manufacturing of fear is also beautifully portrayed in William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’. If you remember, a group of boys that are shipwrecked on an island descend into anarchy. This is not, as it is for some, a warning about our inevitable descent into a “dog eat dog” state of nature. The trouble begins when the lead hunter, Jack, uses the fear of a “beast” to manipulate the boys on the island: “We’re hunters and if there is a beast, it is my hunters who will protect you from it.” This is a neat example of what the French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, refers to as a construction of the ‘hyperreal’. Be afraid of the danger out there. But if you surrender your freedom then you will be defended.  Of course, the “beast” in the ‘Lord of the Flies’ turned out to be a dead parachutist hanging from a tree, but when one young boy, Simon, realised that the illusion was being used for fear mongering, he was himself hunted and killed. We are without actual dangers in the world, but in a culture of anxiety we are often looking for a recognisable threat.

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain

Anyone familiar with the classic film, ‘The Wizard of Oz’, will remember the scene when the Wizard is revealed to Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion as an elaborate illusion being operated by an old man at a machine behind a curtain. The idea that there might be a puppet master pulling all of the strings to manipulate our greatest fears is unsettling. It is perhaps worse to think that if we pull back the curtain we will find nobody there at all. The dangers are often inside our head. Carl Schmitt wrote of a common desire to imagine concrete features of a threat that could become an identifiable object of fear and target of hate. The enemies of our security that we create are often chimera. ‘Yahud’ and ‘Aravim’ are names that are often given to imaginary enemy figures here, which are made up of real characteristics, but are unconnected to real people.

When we feel anxious and unsettled in a threatening environment, we are often looking for a danger to focus our attention on. To make sense of a situation that we gaze upon, Michel Foucault suggested that we are looking for features that we expect to see. An interesting example of this can be found during the Cold War, when US Ambassador Richard Patterson was asked to report back to Washington with his evaluation of whether the new President of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz, was a communist threat to the US.

“Suppose you see a bird walking around in a farm yard. This bird has no label that says ‘duck’. But the bird certainly looks like a duck. Also, he goes to the pond and you notice that he swims like a duck. Then he opens his beak and quacks like a duck. Well, by this time you have probably reached the conclusion that the bird is a duck, whether he’s wearing a label or not.”

Árbenz was neither a communist nor a serious threat to the US. But we do not experience the world as rational calculating individuals. We depend upon cognitive heuristics to fill in the gaps of our immediate perception. I am sure that you have felt that rush of fear when you see a spider out the corner of your eye, only to realise moments later that it was just a ball of fluff blowing past.

What world do you live in?

How many times have you asked someone what world they are living in? It can be hard to understand the (over)reaction of others to some things that seem trivial. The same triggers do not push everyone over a threshold into a state of anxiety. We are often too quick to assume that we share a common world. Gilles Deleuze suggests that the world that is sensed and made sense of only exists for that person. We live in different worlds that are not outside thought. Deleuze explains that this is not the “actual world”, but the world that we think up and articulate as we try to cope and make sense of the unique situations we face.

To make sense of the world is not just something that we do; it is something that happens to us. We open up our senses to the world and feel the changes in our body as it is affected by shifts in our environment – the light that causes our eyes to flinch; the sound that startles us; the smell that makes us recoil in disgust; or the image that makes our heart race. I ask students to summarise Deleuze’s own description of this “affecting” to show them how the text itself can induce panic and to demonstrate that we do not just act upon the world around us, but it also acts upon us too. The neuroscience reveals that unconscious brain processes begin moments before we are even aware of our intentions to act on our senses. Our subjective conscious registers the negative and positive reactions to our surroundings or the feeling of anxiety caused by the situations that are too strange to make sense of. Ludwig Wittgenstein argues that we do not struggle to make sense of the world due to a lack of intellect, but because of how we orient ourselves towards encounters with the world.

Serene Illumination

We do not make better sense of the world and overcome anxiety with just more information. We create a shift in mindset by changing what we think with and how we relate to the world. To see the world anew is to embrace an encounter with something that challenges us. The experience of something new and something unexpected reveals a previously unknown possibility that is without name. In our culture of anxiety it is more likely we will feel overwhelmed by an encounter with the new than feel relaxed enough to stand on the edge of chaos and open ourselves to the possibility of awe and wonder.

The art of just sitting that is mastered in the practice of Shikantaza is one way to focus the mind and manage sense perceptions with clear and non-judgemental attention. Learning how to silence and settle the mind can bring forth serene illumination. We can become aware of our surrounding world without becoming attached to objects of fear. Warriors are able to take a moment to prepare themselves for battle without fear. In a culture of anxiety, it might be more useful to forget searching for a danger that we can manage and think about reorienting the way we approach the world.

Another World

A local just on a break from his work at the Church of the Nativity approaches and explains that today marks graduation for many students. The car horns and cheers take on a different meaning. I hear the loud bangs again and recognise the familiar sound of celebratory fireworks.

Mark Spokes

Showing 2 comments
  • Valeria

    “To see the world anew is to embrace an encounter with something that challenges us”. If this would be taught to us from early years, our perception of the world and the development of anxiety would be different.

    • Mark Spokes

      Thank you for your post, Valeria. I have heard a few stories recently about schools that are promoting this among their students. It might be a difficult task to learn to see the world anew as we get older, as we have both discovered, but it is a goal that is definitely possible and a task worth undertaking!


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