“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror…”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933
The night of December 3, I asked for help and guidance from my dreams. What, if anything, was I called to do in the aftermath of the massacre in San Bernardino? The dream that came the next morning is for all of us:
I’m in a group in which some people are suspected of being capable of carrying out acts of terrorism. I am helping to keep the lines of communication open between those people and the ones who suspect them, encouraging them not to close off to each other. There are risks either way; I’m well aware of them. What if one of the people suspected is really a terrorist? What if the negativity of the other group leads the ones who are suspected to give up hope? I sit in the middle, between the groups. As I focus on being compassionate with each side, my perspective shifts: the people I am focusing on look bigger, more detailed, more three-dimensional.
As I turn from one group to the other, my willingness to see each one fully and clearly opens a space for them to see each other that way.
Take a moment to imagine yourself in this dream, sitting in the middle between the groups. In the dream, the ones suspected and the ones suspecting are not identified. How do you experience that? What do you notice as you turn from side to side, seeing each group in the way I describe?
Fear is an instantaneous, physical/emotional reaction. It primes us take action to stay alive or avoid harm. When we experience trauma, often the fear is not discharged from our bodies. All of us have some kind of trauma in our personal or ancestral history. If the trauma remains hidden, it can be triggered in a variety of ways outside our conscious awareness. We may feel terrified without knowing why.
Cultivating a state of “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” is the goal of terrorist and demagogue alike. In this state, seeking safety, we search for meaning, for logical explanations. All too often, to simplify complex situations, we reduce human beings to stereotypes. We dehumanize others to justify doing things that we believe or have been convinced will keep us safe. The actions that we take, or allow others to take in our names, may put us and those we fear in far greater danger. When people who are not Muslim use a terrorist attack as the pretext to target Muslims verbally or physically, they become the terrorists they profess to hate.
What is the antidote to “fear itself”? The dream demonstrates it. Each of us has the capacity to see other humans in three dimensions, with compassion, and to set that example for others. The more we know about the ones we fear, the more we see the ways that we are alike. This applies to any group that might be suspected or might be suspecting others – groups we support and those we don’t. There’s no easy way out of this conundrum. If we demonize one group while protesting the demonization of another, we are part of the problem. We can firmly oppose people’s words and actions while recognizing their essential humanity.