Dark Epiphanes: A Meditation on Fear



“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fear relieved”     From the hymn Amazing Grace.


The elevator doors were already closing. I ran, pushed my hand into the gap and forced my way inside. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed two women, a man,and the display panel with the indicators for floors 3,and 22 illuminated. I pushed ll.


Suddenly an angry voice behind me said: ” You stepped on my boots”


My glance fell to a pair of expensive snakeskin boots and then traveled up past the stylish slacks, the open sport shirt, the gold neck chain and came to rest on the face of a  black man. He was average height,in his early thirties,with a tight,heavily muscled, fighters body.


I’m sorry.” I said, almost automatically.


At the third floor the door opened, the two women got off, leaving me alone with the man . I moved to the side of the elevator to avoid further contact.


.”You stepped on my boots white boy. I dont like that.”


“Im sorry if I did”, I repeated.


He turned to face me. “In fact, I don’t like white people. I’ve killed lots of people just like you. What’s the matter, white boy,  you scared of me? You’re a cracker aren’t you? You dont like niggers.  I was in Vietnam and I fought for people like you, and you still call me a nigger. You’re going to die and meet your maker– someday”


The suddenness of the attack left me inert, totally unprepared to defend myself, trapped in a nightmare from which I could not escape. With rising panic I realized I was in an isolation chamber with a crazy man ,with the random violence of the war in Vietnam about to explode in my middle class face.


He moved a step closer –total rage, a wind-blown flame cresting on the top of a hill. I tried to see if he had a weapon and then looked  at the floor indicator on the elevator—

9……10….. . A race against time. Would his rage burst before the eleventh floor?


At the eleventh floor the door opened. Would he block my exit? I stepped into the opening.  My first aggressive movement. He remained in the back of the elevator. I turned, held the door open, and finally found awkward words. “You are right about the war. But you are wrong about me.” I wanted to tell him I was not his enemy; I wasn’t one of those people who sent him to Vietnam.


“Get out of here, white boy, get your hand off that door.”


The elevator doors slid together, for an instant framing a panther ready to strike. Then it continued bearing its wounded and engraged veteran to the 22nd floor.


For a while I stood, shaking, feeling  disoriented and made a conscious effort to patch myself together and recover from the onslaught of abstract enmity. A close call; a lucky escape . And then I continued to my tax accountants office.


After an hour of mortgages, interest,and deductions I retraced my steps to the elevator, pushed the button and waited. The door opened. Empty! Thank God. Back on the street I looked around carefully . No sign of Him. I cut through several buildings and doubled back to make sure I was not being followed. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was just around the corner, or lurking unseen behind a parked car. Shadowed by  terror, I was an ambulatory prisoner of my own paranoia.


Making my way toward my car I automatically assumed the traditional male posture for reacting to threat. Chimp-like, I swelled my chest,(me Tarzan) tightened my anal sphincter, and

started walking tall. You know, like Gary Cooper at high noon, John Wayne in a green beret, Rambo or Rocky, strutting the right stuff. Now that the threat was past I started hanging tough, did the manly thing. Or in  psychological jargon : I recovered my normal defense mechanisms and reassembled my character armor.


But the old courage didn’t flow up through my legs and   underbelly. Instead I felt hollow, phoney.  Who was I fooling with this macho act?  In the pinch I hadn’t acted courageously. Far from meeting aggression with aggression I had been paralyzed. Remember Munich? I felt ashamed of myself. Dirty Harry would have handled the situation with a left to the gut and a quick karate chop . I had wimped out. But to add to my confusion ,I suspected it was precisely my lack of action that saved me from stumbling over the trip-wire  connected to a stockpile of rage that might have blown me away.


That night I couldn’t sleep. A nameless anxiety haunted me. No single fear took form. It was more as if the defenses around my perimiter had been infiltrated by an enemy and I feared attack at any minute from all sides. Some insulating layer that normally protects my psyche had been stripped away leaving my illulsion of invulnerablity shattered. Turtle without a shell.


When two bourbons didn’t help I decided to descend into Hades and explore the shape of my fears.  Perhaps by calling to mind the history of my own encounters with fear I might discover how I should handle this episode. Should I, for instance, shake it off, take up karate to toughen myself? Or should I savor this fear, consider it a possible epiphany , the bearer of an unexpected bit of self-knowledge not available in any other way?  With these thoughts in mind I began a psychonaut’s journey  through the landscape of my private fears.


The social atmosphere I have breathed since my early years has been saturated with a philosophy and litany of fearlessness. Like most men, I learned by osmosis and direct teaching that courage is the definition of masculinity and fear its antithesis. Fear is the communist conspiracy of the emotions. Give it an inch and soon it will establish its evil empire deep in the heart of Texas. Real men conquer it, live by the motto of FDR: “We have nothing to fear except fear itself”


I can hardly remember a time when I wasn’t working at being fearless. Can you? When we were little there were Bogey men, bears, things that go bump in the night, a hole in the closet wall that led into the dark attic of the house which threatened to disgorge all manner of dream monsters. And there was the terrible fear that something would happen to Dad or Mom and there would be no one to take care of us. Like most small boys with sensitive natures, I feared the large boys, avoided fights when I could and usually lost when I couldn’t. I did not fear random violence or unjust punishment from my parents but I had the orthodox Presbyterian fear of displeasing God and being condemned to the flames of hell. What if I were not among the elect? “If I should die before I wake, I prayed the Lord my soul would take” But would he?


Fortunately, boys have always been provided with ritual ways of struggling against and conquering fear. It starts with seemingly innocent guidance and hazing from grown men, big brothers and sometimes mothers.” Boys don’t cry. Don’t be a sissy. That didn’t hurt.. Don’t be a scaredy cat”. And it proceeds from there to a graduated series of ordeals in which we seek out danger in order to confront and defeat our fear. When I was a kid we snuck out of the house in the dark of the moon and walked through graveyards or explored  haunted houses. We took dares:jumped from the cliffs high above the swimming hole; stole a car to go joyriding;  strolled through the turf of a rival gang ; rode a wild bronc. Once when I was l6, to impress the fair Jane Jeffres, I swam a mile  out to sea and climbed aboard a fishing boat, which unbeknownst to me was surrounded by sharks . As far as I know it did not increase my romantic stock with Jane but I sure impressed myself and the other guys. Shortly after we got our drivers licenses we learned about speed and danger, fear and sex. Take your lady for a spin on a Harley Davidson and nearing l00mph you discover that the right amount of fear is a powerful aphrodesiac. As Hemingway noticed, there is nothing like the smell of death in the afternoon to stimulate lust. I was too young for WWII, too privledged for Korea, too old for Vietnam. But I watched while many of my friends went through the final blood-ritual –war–the ultimate male initiation into the cult of fearlessness .I wondered how I would face the terror of battle, the fear of killing and being killed.


My practice of courage in my 20s and 30s was mostly in situations in which I could confront fear in a direct, physical manner , rock climbing, wrestling, skin diving.


For instance. I had been scuba diving for several years when Gif Warner asked me to help salvage the bow section of the  supertanker The African Queen which had run aground and broken up on the Fendwick Island Shoals. I was more than a little nervous as we prepared to explore the interior of the bow section which was in 80 feet of water. Six foot swells made it hard to get into the water without being smashed between the dive boat and the protruding section of the wreck. But once beneath the surface the wave action ceased and we entered the weightless world. As we swam through the cargo hatch, 30 feet down, the groaning and creaking of the wreck played a cacaphonous counterpoint to the hissing of our aqua lungs. All was well until we started to swim, or rather feel our way, up the narrow, dark, passageway that led to the chain locker. What unknown dangers were lurking in the liquid blackness? Sharks? Eels? Could the wreck turn over and trap us inside? My mild claustrophobia rapidly gave way to full blown panic. I turned and started groping my way back toward the outside. Then, suddenly, something shifted near the core of my psyche and I became more afraid of what would happen to me if I yielded to my fear than I was of the darkness. I turned around . Immediately, I could see. There was enough light filtering through the cracks in the wreck to see Gif in front of me, emerging from a hatch in the chain locker in a flood of bubbles, beard streaming, looking like Mephistophiles rising from hell. I laughed with relief. Pushing my fear in front of me, I made my way deeper into the maze of the wreck.


.  It’s easy to be nostalgiac about early adventures and conquests in the once-upon-a-time before the snake brought self-consciousness into the garden. Heady stuff. Clean victories over simple fears.  Each time I forced myself to dive deeper or climb higher I lost some of the baby-fat on my soul, got tougher, won a measure of respect in my own eyes, gained the confidence to take greater risks. Dealing with physical danger helps to develop comfort with the body and a reservior of self-

confidence. It’s boot camp in the battle against fear. Later, in more complex situations we learn it is sometimes more heroic to walk away from hopeless struggles and trivial risks than to stand and fight.


Meanwhile there were battles to be fought in the “real” world of economics ,work, and professional status.–low intensity warfare in the monetary zone.


It never occured to me to do other than find work and strive for financially security. Nor did I stop to wonder how much my drive for success was motivated by fear of scarcity rather than joy in creation. In fat times I remained  a scrawny wolf remembering hard winters, dreading the spectre of hunger.(Perhaps because I was a child of parents who had suffered through the great depression) Like most middle-class men, financial anxiety kept me prowling and dealing. (According to a recenty survey Fears and Fantasies of the American Consumer money problems are the major worry and source of stress for %58 of Americans.)  I suspect that my terror of loss of job and income was roughly equivalent to the fear tribal peoples felt when Spring did not arrive on schedule and they thought God the Father, or Mother Nature was angry with them. Nowadays,the fickle cycle of the market giveth and taketh away. Blessed be the name of my employer. I ran fast, worked hard, climbed the professional ladder, endured stress. All the while a voice whispered in my ear: ” Can you make enough money to be secure? To provide for your family? Your old age? What will happen to you if you get sick and can’t work? Or lose your job?” It was not until I was 50 and began to look at my 30s in retrospect that I realized the Apple Pie virtues –Type A behavior,aggresion, drive– were an active expression of chronic anxiety. The fear of poverty and failure are a useful prod to performance, a whip to make the horse run faster. But finally the horse gets tired—or smart.


There is another subtle fear that pervades the world of work–the economic equivalent of performance anxiety. The modern corporation and professional environment breeds paranoia—They are always watching, evaluating, and competing against you. So you had better look good in the eyes of the boss and influential colleagues. If I think back to the time of my novitiate in the order of St.Status Quo (the hazing process of graduate school and apprenticeship in academia) I remember

the atmosphere of chronic low-level fear that passed for normality. A stale, indoor fear, tinged with shame, hidden byambition. Would I measure up to THEIR expectations?  I wore grey suits with modestly appointed ties, read papers to my professional colleagues from prepared manuscripts (for fear of making mistakes). Like a politician. And I wondered why, after all the brave and difficult things I had done, I still felt vaguely like a boy playing an adult part in the world of men  “Alone and afraid in a world I never made”


On November 4, l964 my father died,. I was 33 .The ground of my being shook ( 7.9 on the Richter scale) and the landscape of fear changed forever. Freud said the death of the father is the crucial event in a man’s life. It was in mine. Quite suddenly the innocent immortality of youth ,the illusory invulnerability that allowed me to flirt with danger and thumb my nose at fear, was gone. Childhood’s end. For the first time I knew in my gut that death was real. If the father,the giant, the protector, the hero and slayer of dragons dies, it follows with sickening clarity that nothing can save the son. And if death, disease and tragedy are not to be conquered they naturally produce fears a man must learn to live with or else choose to pacify himself with illusion and distraction.  My time of conquest of fear was over..


The crack through which death kept entering my psyche seemed to open up in the middle of the night. Around 2 A.M. when body temperature falls and defenses are down, I would wake from a sound sleep, stumble into the bathroom and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Without warning, the floor would drop from beneath me and I would find myself standing over an abyss into which I could scream forever without getting an echo back. THE unacceptable thought would make its way into my mind–Someday I’m going to disappear. The universe is going to rub me out. I will be Zero. Nothing. Forever.


Gradually I learned that the best way to deal with the 2AM  terror was to walk into the heart of the void. There is a tribe in New Guinea that has a coming of age ritual for boys that involves swalowing a poison that can be absorbed in the throat but is neutralized once it hits the stomach. The trick is not to hesitate or gag. Like strong whiskey, take death neat. One swallow.. Dont deny or run from the monster. If,as the terror of nothingness begins to thrash in the bottom of your mind, you can

ride the wild thing, in the calm that follows you will see with

new eyes how the layers of your persona, your act,your character armor, have been put constructed to deny death. And your relationship to fear will be transformed. From now on you may live with fear not as an enemy to be defeated but as a dark friend, a guide. Think of the fear of death as the thread of Ariadne that can lead into the depths of the unconscious, into the dark underworld most of us avoid in our green and springing up years. Philosophers as unalike as Socrates and Camus recommended contemplation of death as the most direct path to

wisdom and happiness because the capacity to wonder is inseparable from the willingness to experience terror. Once we slip out of that old male the straight-jacket–the illusion that we can control the world–anything can happen.


There is another not so brave strategy for dealing with the 2 oclock terror and the fear of death.  Give nothingness a face, convert vague anxiety into a specific fear. Often I practice a bit of the art of hypochondria. I worry about cancer or a heart attacks and create a ritual to ward off the danger– stop drinking coffee, eat bran, resolve to exercise daily. The spectre of disease frightens me . I remember the first time I pissed blood and the doctors gave me a rundown of the fatal possibilities. For a week before the results of the biopsy were known I imagined myself sick, dependent, no longer in control. And I wondered if I could still feel manly if I had to be in a hospital and have people taking care of me. As a rule, men are more psychologically disturbed by illness than women who are taught by mensturation and childbirth that mortality is often accompanied by cramping and pain and that we are born in order to lose control. Men make lousy patients. Ask any doctor. When our flesh no longer rises to the dictates of our will we feel the Reaper, the Raper, coming for us and we panic. Disease and disability raise the spector men have been taught to fear: weakness, dependency, and passivity.

If by good luck, death and disease don’t come calling early in a man’s life, middle-age nevertheless arrives predictably  as Autumn and brings its own special crisis. The half way mark is a time for stock taking, reevaluation and changing directions. And it is normally accompanied  by anxiety. Anxiety is especially puzzling for the affluent who wake up one morning with thefeeling their lives have become more comfortable but less meaningful.  Nearing 40 sadness descended upon me, and a conviction that I had somehow been cheated. Was this all there was to life? Something was missing ! There seemed to be a vacumn at my center.It was as if I was grieving for something I had never known or been, lamenting an unfullfilled promise,a road not taken.. I became afraid of what might not happen, afraid of missing something. But I didn’t know what. When I tried to locate the region in which the unknown treasure was buried the signals seemed to be coming from below, rather than from around me.  The terra incognito, the unknown land, was within myself.


So I started digging. A peasant plowing a field in Italy discovers a hand of a old statue, digs deeper and finds the ruins of Pompeii; beneath the surface of masculinity a complex of ancient fears and new possibilities.  Man’s untold story, unlived life.  Sometimes the best way to get a handle on the anxiety is to locate a specific fear that leads down into the unknown. As embarassing as it was to admit to myself, I was afraid of women. Years of marriage, divorce and “exploring my sexuality”  ( as they say in California) had still not completely banished my fear of failure. No word struck more terror into my heart than “impotence” On those occasions when I failed to perform well and gain the appreciation of my female audience my self-esteem withered. As did other things. I felt terribly alone..


I have learned since that my fear is common if not universal among men.A well kept secret. As a rule men do not talk much about sexual fears and disappointments. The men’s group of which I am a member was well into its third year before we lost our cockiness and spoke with candor about sex..It turns out,the  fear of impotence is an inevitable part of male sexuality. According to the macho myth real men, the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Ronald Reagan, Joe Montana and Warren Beaty, never experience the least anxiety about their sexuality. My suspision is that most of us are more like Woody Allen. Sex is a big thing. And we judge it in absolute terms. It is either/or, up or down. Unlike the female of the species, we are definitely ready or not. Liberated women a generation ago were confessing in Ms how often they faked orgasm.. Playboy has yet to run an article entitled: ” How I Faked an Erection” And should our erector set fail or collapse in the middle of the job the most sophisticated of us still suffer a degree of embarassment.


But why should men fear women? After all ,we have successfully kept them beheath us in the hierarchy of dignity and power, in the missionary position, for many centuries. Why do they still have such  secret power over us? Are we afraid of their anger? Partly. But the matter runs deeper. What threatens us most is what we think of as the “feminine” elements within ourselves which we see reflected in women–the return of the repressed. We have been conditioned to believe that to be feminine is to be irrational, intuitive, sensual, dependent, nurturing, warm,and vulnerable. To be manly is to be reasonable and to remain in control of emotions and situations..It is to be

tough and hard. (A hard man is good to find) Therefore our  identity as men is placed in question when we surrender to the impulse of feelings, no matter whether they are feelings of sadness or joy , depression or elation.


What I discover in reviewing my years is that wrestling with fear the first part of my life toughened me; dancing with fear the second part of my life softened me. And I like it.

It is hard to overrate the dividends that accrue to a man from the recovery of the lost world of feeling without sounding like an inflated stock offering. But get the first olive out of the bottle and all the soft, liquid things follow- a new moontide of images, sensations, intuitions. Suddenly there is technicolor. Quite literally.  Research has shown that women (and men who have become accustomed to their feminine side) dream more frequently than “normal” men,and more often in color. From taking pleasure in dreams it is only a short step into the treasures (and trash) of the unconscious. And another short step to that kind of creativity that occurs only when Apollo and Dionysius, reason and emotion dance together. Certainly men who have discovered their own femininity, the virtues of slow hands and a soft-on, lose their fear of flesh-and -blood women. What is more extrordinary ,they fall in love with themeslves. I’m not talking about male narcissism or strutting, but that measured self-love that allows a man not to have to depend upon a woman for all that is soft and nurturing, and allows him finally to take pleasure in his own company. When the fear of being alone is transformed into the love of solitude a man is nearly home free.


As I review the itinerary of my journey through the landscape of fear I can’t help seeing that I have enjoyed the luxurious fears of the privileged. I have never been forced by circumstance  to lie awake at night and wonder whether I could find food for my children, never known the terror of hearing a knock on the door and fearing it might be the secret police. I have never lived in a country where death squads roam the streets. Nor have I had to suffer the indignity and chronic threat of violence due to my race or color. The nearest I have ever come to knowing what it feels like to be a nigger was on an elevator.


I have yet to mention the one great official fear that has been  number one on the hit parade for the last 40 years.–the fear of communism. Through decades of cold war and detente a majority of Americans have attached a large part of their burden of fear to our official enemy. Our foreign policy and military policy have become inseparable as we have been driven by the fear that unless we resist with all our might we will be reduced to an island in a socialist sea. I have seen enough communists, with their tyranny and greyness, not to want my sister to marry one and to hope none move into the neighborhood. But in truth I can’t work up a sizable fear of being a slave in Amerika. I think it is a phoney fear.


For most of my life I have stood by the fence of the I’m-O.K. You’re-Not O.K.-Corral waiting for the bad guys to start the big shootout. But recently I have developed a new fear–the worst of all. It isn’t the enemy I fear so much as our mutual enmity, not what they will do to us but what we may do to each other. I have a nightmare that there will be a nuclear war between the US and the USSR. Most of us won’t be killed in the initial blasts but will sicken and die horribly from massive burns and radiation poisoning. And, in those final days I will have to help my family, my children, my friends die before I take my own life.


I don’t know how to shake this fear. In the next war there is only one battlefield. Everyone is equally an enemy and a victim. We’re all on the same elevator and nobody gets off on the llth floor.