Beyond the Edge of the Known World

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, laid the foundation for  20th century American optimism with his statement that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, made during his first inaugural address in 1933. FDR meant that the challenges facing the nation at that time - the economic and social crises arising from the Great Depression - were not “failures of substance”, in his words, but concerned “only material things”; the inequitable distribution of wealth, the malfeasance of the financial sector, the “withered leaves of industrial enterprise” - all problems which could be overcome through the rejection of fear and the application of human effort and will. 

From its origins as a rallying cry for the nation, FDR’s confident words have become a catchphrase employed by coaches, motivational speakers, office managers, and media personalities - anyone who has been confronted with unfounded anxieties (which is all of us at one point or another) or the need to steel their followers to some difficult task. Where FDR set fear as a monumental counterpoint to progress, a “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”, we have diluted his meaning to an insipid reassurance - “fear is nothing to be afraid of”. 

Given the ease with which we assert that we have nothing to fear one would expect humanity in the 21st century to have evolved into a courageous and confident species, undaunted by worry or concern. But no. Far from eliminating fear, we have made it the very foundation of our existence. It governs our beliefs, ideologies and actions. It defines our relationships at every level, from the personal to the global. We bathe in a pool of anxiety fed by the news, by social media, by the opinions of pundits and cultural commentators, by our leaders. From the moment we wake, reflexively checking our phones for the latest round of dire predictions or outrage, to the minute we shut down our devices at night and close our eyes, to toss in fitful, interrupted sleep, we consume a constant stream of fear.

Some of our fears are real, immediate, and existential, and not to be dismissed through rhetoric. We are threatened by poverty, economic uncertainty, violence, and disease. At this writing we are battling a global pandemic with a terrible toll that continues to grow, and which comes with economic and social consequences that will mark an entire generation. And, more slowly than the spread of virus but ultimately with far greater threat, we face the prospect of upheaval through the impact of our industry upon the climate, food supply, biodiversity and other aspects of our environment. We may rightly fear these dangers, as our ancestors in the African savanna feared the predator that prowls beyond the circle of firelight. We should act to protect ourselves and our communities from them. But at their root they are merely challenges to be faced and overcome - problems of material, as FDR said, not substance. 

The greater threat that we face is not these immediate perils, but the entrenchment of fear as a constraint that limits what we can achieve - that defines who we are as individuals, as communities, and as a species. In the decades since FDR urged us to reject fear we have instead encircled ourselves with it. And in doing so we risk failing in all that we attempt as our fear “paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”. We may fail through hesitating when we should act, through retreating when we should advance, through rejecting when we should embrace. We may fail by expending all of our energy in fear when we should be marshalling our courage to overcome the real challenges that we face.

This endemic fear - the fear fostered by our commentators and opinionators -  is not founded in any real threat. We are not in danger from op-eds, memes, and tweets. Instead it is the oldest fear, the fear of the child in the dark, the fear of the unknown, the fear of falling off the edge of the world. Ancient cartographers populated the edges of their charts with fearsome beasts, equating the unknown with the monstrous. And so do we ascribe monstrous characteristics to that which we do not know. Our modern world is completely mapped. There are no unknown monsters to be found in nature. But we have replaced them with monsters of our own making, monsters that are born from our conceptions and misconceptions. In our “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” we have mapped the boundaries of our known worlds with our fear of other people.

Thirty years after FDR gave that first inaugural speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who confronted fear with tremendous courage, crafted a sermon titled “The Mastery of Fear or Antidotes for Fear” in which he wrote: 

“Courage and cowardice are antithetical. Courage is an inner resolution to go forward in spite of obstacles and frightening situations; cowardice is a submissive surrender to circumstance. Courage breeds creative self-affirmation; cowardice produces destructive self-abnegation. Courage faces fear and thereby masters it; cowardice represses fear and is thereby mastered by it.”

Dr. King knew and preached that courage is the foundation of love and kindness, where cowardice engenders only anger and hate. Like FDR, he saw clearly how fear prevents us from moving forward, rising above, and solving the problems that we face. In his sermon on fear he wrote that: “Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear, only love can do that. Hatred paralyzes life, love releases it Hatred confuses life, love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life, love lights it.” 

Fear and hate ultimately took Dr. King’s life; a fate that he anticipated and did not shy from. And yet the lesson we should receive is not the way in which his life ended, but that while he lived he met hate with love and anger with kindness - an example of courage far greater than that which is needed to face mere physical danger. Dr. King would say that his courage was rooted in faith, writing that “the idea that God is mindful of the individual is of tremendous value in dealing with the poisonous disease of fear. It gives one a sense of worth, belonging and at-homeness in the universe.” For those like Dr King who adhere to belief in a mindful god, whatever the religion, that foundation is surely a comfort. However there are other fonts of strength for those who do not share his faith - love of family, righteousness, sense of self, sense of community or civic duty, or merely the desire to “do good this day”.

But from whatever place we may find our courage - from faith, from the imperatives of parenthood, from a commitment to service, from a humanitarian instinct, or from the often-misplaced “moral compass”, that fallible and yet essential instrument - now is the time for us to reject the constraints of fear. If we look beyond the edge of the map with courage instead of cowardice we will see that the uncharted regions are populated not with monsters, but with people who have their own fears to master. Some of those people may respond with anger and hate born of their fear. Some, like the man who took Dr. King’s life with an assassin’s bullet, may be so lost in their personal wilderness of fear that they are unable to find their way back to the commonweal. Yet as FDR spoke, as Dr. King preached, and as other great men and women who have led through courage in the face of hatred exemplify, our only path forward lies in rejecting fear and abandoning hate.

If we meet hate with hate and anger with anger, if we choose the path of cowardice over courage, if we cower in our known worlds, too frightened to go beyond the edge, we will be paralyzed, forever afraid, terrified not of any real danger but simply of fear itself. But if we steer another course, if we gather our strength and master our fears, we may still overcome our material problems. We are not lost so long as we do not give ourselves up to fear.