The Words Crawl in, The Words Crawl Out: Existential Dread and FDR’s Inaugural Address
Sometimes expressions are so powerful, so significant, that it is easy to lose sight of how utterly absurd they are. American history is riddled with such quotes. A personal favorite of mine comes from FDR’s 1st Inaugural address. The story goes something like this: America was mired in the worst economic depression in it’s history. Roosevelt had just put an end to the rattling death spiral that was Herbert Hoover‘s Presidency and stood in front of the country promising the revitalization of the American Dream and the end of nearly four years of chaos, despair and misery.
Within the first few sentences of his first Presidential address, Roosevelt set a tone of vital, unabashed optimism when he uttered the now famous words “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Those words, along with many social programs or “fortuitous” sets of circumstances (depending on who you ask), picked America up and led it through some of it’s worst moments. It became a rallying cry for a troubled nation whose best days were ahead of it.
I need you to know that I am not six years old. I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy or the literal truth of expressions used by politicians in speeches. I am quite sure that Roosevelt was afraid of a few things besides fear. Maybe he was afraid of spiders, maybe he was paranoid about being in graveyards after 9 PM, maybe he was just plain scared of being attacked by a group of fanged clowns. I really am not sure what made FDR fret, but I am quite sure something did. The point is, the line was meant to be hyperbole.
Here’s the problem, if you hold the line up and look at it for a minute, even as hyperbole, it turns into mush in your hands. The truth of the matter is, there are an enormous amount of things to be afraid of. We are narrowly held on a mortal coil that could collapse at anytime. Our bodies, given a few years of exuberant youth, quickly melt away like ice cream on a summer afternoon. We rarely, if ever, are informed of when our time here will end and on the rare occasions we get that message in advance it is never good news. We form deep connections with those around us only to watch those bonds dissolved through mortality or miscommunication. As humans, we depend on a constant flow of sustenance that could dry up or be ripped away at any time. The possibility of mass annihilation through disease, war or famine are never far from our collective consciousness.
After death, who knows what bizarre carnival awaits us. Will I go to a smoking pit of flames, left to forever roast for eternity for some momentary lapse of judgement I made in the previous life? Or shall I fly away on white wings floating in a vast cosmic eternity day after day after day after day….with no end anywhere in sight? Will I simply get to experience the same mindless pain and suffering over and over, just from some new perspective? Will I come back as some “lower” animal, only to be slaughtered by other creatures for food, belts or coats or stepped on because I am “in the way”? Will I be at one with the universe, a desireless speck in an endless cosmos? Or will I lay in the ground and deteriorate slowly, a buffet for worms and bugs; a previously animated, once sentient form of high quality fertilizer? Which option would be preferable to me? (It doesn’t matter…I don’t really get to choose!)
If Roosevelt had any sense of the existential turmoil that lives at the root of our being, he would have left comedy to the comedians. How could someone look at the human condition and honestly utter the expression that there is only fear to fear? Fear is a completely reasonable response to an entirely preposterous set of circumstances. Maybe Roosevelt understood this and decided the best way to comfort humans was to deceive them and give them a false understanding of the terms of the world. You’ll forgive me if I don’t thank him for that. I have always believed that given the choice of comforting words or horrific facts, people tend to believe the latter, even if they don’t readily admit to it.
I am never more convinced that a person is lying to me and to themselves as when they say something like “I am not afraid of death”. This delusion can be truly catastrophic, not just because it allows people to pretend that their life is something that it is not, but because it allows people to rationalize the suffering of other creatures. “If I am not afraid of death, then it must not be that bad, then your death isn’t as bad as you think, then you should just get over your death (after all, I did), then you should stop dying because it reminds me I will die (which I am not, by the way, afraid of).” The logic (or lack of it) is torturous. “It is just a dumb beast, what does it matter if it dies or it is just a non-American, what does it matter if it dies or it is just one, what does it matter if it dies, or it’s just one of THEM, what does it matter if it dies or it’s not related to me or my friend, what does it matter if it dies.” These thoughts cannot be far behind.
Fear, I concede, can produce irrational responses and untold misery. However, it can also be a great tool to remind us of our humanity. It has the invaluable capability of reminding us what we share with the rest of these animated objects that surround us. Fear is not something to be feared, it is something to be listened to, reckoned with and understood. Otherwise, how can we ever truly begin to understand what we are and what we share with the creatures around us.