The Words Crawl in, The Words Crawl Out: Existential Dread and FDR’s Inaugural Address

An appropriate response to reality?

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.

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  1. #1 by Phil Dai on November 8, 2010 - 2:43 PM

    You must love animal,sir.And you are someone merciful.But I am sorry that can’t read more times,since the letters are too small for me,they hurt my eyes.And I had better listen to what that Yale professor said recently.Will come to read your blogs sometimes,some of those sentences are beautiful.Thanks.

  2. #2 by Paul Zummo on November 16, 2010 - 1:03 AM

    This is funny, and slightly eerie (no, not the post). I was directed to your site because you commented on mine, and saw this post. What’s eerie is that I was all set to google this very speech because I wanted to write a post criticizing the line about fear, making many of the same points you have. What timing! Anyway, excellent post.

  3. #3 by Keith Spillett on November 16, 2010 - 2:00 AM

    Thanks for reading it, Paul. I hope this won’t deter you from doing yours. I was very impressed with the Madison article and look forward to your take on the speech.

  4. #4 by tinadot on November 20, 2010 - 10:53 PM

    I really enjoyed reading this post, and one thing that really resonated with me is “As humans, we depend on a constant flow of sustenance that could dry up or be ripped away at any time. ” ….very well put. However, I think that not having a choice in many things, and just being here….the least we are capable of is controlling ourselves. I think its important to come to terms with the fear rather than to submit to it. I guess the best way to sum up this idea is this quote by Epicurus:
    “So the most horrifying of bad things, death, is nothing to us, since in fact whenever we exist death is not present, and whenever death is present then we do not exist”

    We are here, this is as it is so F#@K IT! lol Sometimes I feel like its just as important NOT to think as it is to think…..since NOT thinking over and over again of these things is definitely not an easy thing!

  5. #5 by Keith Spillett on November 20, 2010 - 11:33 PM

    That is a fantastic quote from Epicurus It makes sense in my mind, but not in my gut. Even if it is endless nothingness and I won’t know the difference, the thought is still terrifying.

    Sometimes, I’m not even sure I’m afraid to die, I think I am more afraid of dying. That last moment where you look around and know it’s over seems so utterly horrific that I am not sure what to do with it. The last breath, the last blink, the last motion, blehhhhhhhhh…too much.

    Your point about how it is as important not think as to think was quite eloquent. TS Eliot nailed that idea as well in Choruses From the Rock when he wrote:
    “Endless invention, endless experiment,
    Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
    Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;”

    As much as I love that idea, I am not able to turn the cerebral carnival off for more than a few seconds at a clip. I think I would probably be much happier if I believed what you believe, I’m just not sure how to find that place. The silence is too loud for me.

    • #6 by tinadot on November 20, 2010 - 11:46 PM

      “Sometimes, I’m not even sure I’m afraid to die, I think I am more afraid of dying.” – truly terrifying indeed! The endlessly rotating spheres of philosophy are sometimes best resolved (at least resolved enough to make the panic go away) for me in day to day things. Being absorbed in a task and then coming out of that space and realizing you have just gotten lost within that.
      I think its great what you are doing with this blog, sorting out your thoughts. Have you always been heavy into this sort of contemplation?

  6. #7 by Keith Spillett on November 20, 2010 - 11:58 PM

    Coaching basketball resolves it for me more often than anything else. I can remember to forget or forget to remember a lot when I am absorbed in the absurd nuances of basketball. I do have moments!

    Thanks! The gears seem to always be turning. They go a lot of very unusual places. I probably sound a touch morbid from some of the stuff I write, but I really do enjoy the juxtaposition of strange ideas. It makes me feel very happy to know that I can share these ideas with people because I don’t feel so alone with them. Knowing that other people are interested in the weird stuff bouncing around my head is a genuine gift.

  7. #9 by brucetheeconomist on December 24, 2010 - 4:13 AM

    I think life acquire most of its meaning from having connections with something larger than yourself, whether that is family, friends or other, and trying to add something good to something beyond yourself. That said our existences individually and even as part of humanity are still pretty small relative to the universe. I think I can accept this: my finiteness. Some are I think delusional about it, they expect to become God, or at least God like, and choose to ignore how insignificant we are and how little control over our existences we have.

  8. #10 by Keith Spillett on December 24, 2010 - 12:01 PM

    You really nailed it, Bruce. I am personally much less ready to accept my own finiteness. I would really rather believe that I went on for ever, but I don’t really see that scenario as likely. The thought of death genuinely frightens me.

    My insignificance is a bit easier of a pill to swallow. Every once and a while I start to think that I am something completely unique and that the world would not function without me. Life always seems to have a way of reminding me in those moments that I am being silly. DeGaulle summed it up perfectly with his “graveyards are filled with irreplaceable men” line.

  9. #11 by Keith Spillett on June 1, 2014 - 3:51 PM

    I just re-read this. Boy…this article sucks.

  1. We Have Nothing to Fear But the Fear of Fear | The American Catholic

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