“And here you are living, despite it all”
– Rupi Kaur
I’ve been making a list of things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.
In his list, Neil Gaiman likened traditional education to something seemingly worthless. He lists the daunting life lessons we all need to know, but only learn through experience. To add to that list, Fear, they don’t teach us how to deal with your unwanted arrival. What we were taught about in school, however, is an array of dense subjects like Maths, Science, Geography, a language here and there and oh of course, History. I’ve been taught about how amazing, powerful, and both destructive and constructive humans have been. I have read that great, high walls were built to block people out and that people are killed in wars all over the world.
Fear, I have read about you in poems, in war books and in funeral programs but I know you because you have formed a part of me. You have crept your way through my cracks, cemented yourself on parts of my body, dripped your way through my mind, and landed inside of me. Fear, you’re like a mosquito waiting for the perfect moment to take-off – the moment the lights go out, darkness looms and the only voices we hear are the unwelcome ones inside our heads.
“Was it just fear? The voices wonder. We were fearful in the best of times; how could we cope with the worst? So, we found the tallest walls and poured ourselves behind them. We kept pouring until we were biggest and strongest, elected the greatest generals and found the most weapons, thinking that all this maximalism would somehow generate happiness. But nothing so obvious could ever work.” This scene from the book Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion describes the nature of the human condition: the way in which we build walls, literal or figurative, as a method of protection from our fears. In times of fear throughout history and in times of personal fear, humans do what seems the simplest thing; we build walls. These walls make us human and more than human but let me tell you something about walls – you can’t climb them without strength.
When I think about walls many disjointed, magical, and contradictory thoughts come to mind. For millennia, humans have used walls to share stories; from cave walls, to street walls, to Facebook walls, we have bonded with our ancestors and strangers, defying space and time. Nevertheless, just as we’ve shared all of this for millennia, in the same amount of time, we have used walls to block each other out. What a strange contradiction it is that we build walls both to share and to exclude. I think the motive for both, however, is you, Fear.
Let’s talk about your great and historical contradictions. Fear, physically you have paved yourself onto the Berlin Wall and separated families. You have spread yourself across the Great Wall of China and separated countries. You have graffitied yourself onto the Israeli West Bank Barrier Wall and segregated religions. Fear, you move around like a gypsy from nation to nation and person to person until they find a home in the writings of history but you insist on continuously moving around. You are the feeling that refuses to be acknowledged and often disguises itself as power but you demand to be felt. You’re the fiercest foe and the forbidden word. You’re the f- fu-
You’re the fundamental element in all of us that introduces us to your dear friend Courage and as much as we hide away from you, I know you’re here to stay. In her book Surrender, Sonya Hartnett described the kind of girl I used to be, and ashamedly sometimes still am. “She doesn’t understand that doors, walls, fences, ceilings – they’re helpless to keep out what determinedly desires to get in.” Behind your fierce façade Fear, I know you are hiding Courage. You are a high cement wall that looks like a prison but ‘oh!’ upon closer inspection; you are a chameleon in disguise. Hidden beyond you is the kind of courage I need to help me write and express myself. It is the kind of courage that has allowed stories to be shared universally and transported through different ages.
Fear, you have nudged our ancestors’ minds and introduced them to your alter ego Courage when they have climbed high enough to unmask your disguise. When this has happened, you have done incredible things. You have transformed into Courage and etched yourself on the Sterkfontein cave walls so that we could know our ancestors. You have engraved yourself on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. You’re a Banksy artwork on an English wall reading ‘Keep your coins, I want change,’ and authentic posts on the Artidote’s Facebook page reading quotes like “So many years of education but no one ever taught us how to love ourselves and why it’s so important.”
Fear, even though I often hide away from you, you incite fascination in my mind and lead me to where I need to be a lot of the time. In her writing ‘Alone in Company’, Mmatshilo Motsei talks about the human being longing for a spiritual home, “a place where we are accepted unconditionally just the way that we are.” Fear, I have seen you scare people away from their homes as you drift around like the nomad you are but I know from experience that you also push us closer to our spiritual homes confined in invisible walls.
Sometimes it feels as though the walls I have built myself are as high as China’s Great Wall; that they are never coming down but I know only the walls I build myself confine me. Other times, Fear, you are the push I need to climb over my walls and into the land of Courage through writing. Fear, you have me wondering how I have had so many years of education yet how no one has ever taught me how to approach you. I have had to learn to greet you on my own and the only thing that has helped me is words. Reading them, writing them and living them. They alone are my teachers.
Fear, I will share with you a thought by Jova that suggests humans are slowly learning how to deal with you and reveal your disguise, “There’s a new generation of people growing with the understanding that as carefully as we need to tend to our body when it gets sick, we must also diligently tend to our mind.” Jova created the Facebook wall project ‘the Artidote’ in 2014, combining the words ‘anecdote’ and ‘art’, as a safe space for people to express their deepest thoughts in a creative way. Today, meaningful messages are spread across the virtual wall and into the minds of humans all over the world and even though I am not learning certain life lessons in a formal classroom, I know many others and I have found a spiritual home in the Artidote.
Fear, if I was born with the weakness to fall at your feet, I now have the strength to climb back up again. Farewell until we meet again.