Faith in an Age of Fear

Today the Hun School had its second annual Convocation to commence the year. As the current holder of the Distinguished Faculty Endowed Chair, it fell to me to present a speech. (I did this last year, too; you can find that speech online.) The text of this second speech can be found below the fold.

Good morning. Being offered a second opportunity to address the School community has been a great honor. I have to confess, it has also been a great challenge. For a while — longer, perhaps, than I should admit — I toyed with the idea of hedging my bets. The plan was to offer a searching analysis of the phenomenon of the “one-hit wonder” — the savant, found in science, in literature, in every human endeavor, who bursts onto the scene like a shooting star, shakes the foundations of a field, and then curiously vanishes back into obscurity, never to contribute again. I trust the parallel here is clear. Best of all, even if the speech fell flat, I would win: I could always claim that, rather than being a textual failure, it was a meta-textual success.

But on Sunday morning I woke up and realized that I was running away from what I needed to say. I had to abandon the whole thing and start over. I hope you’ll indulge me.

Today we meet as a School on a date both solemn and raw for the nation. It wasn’t planned that way; it’s just an accident of the calendar. But sometimes I wonder if history is anything more than accidents of the calendar. If it is, it is because we take those accidents and create meaning in them. As a native son of New York, my jaw still clenches and my eyes still tear whenever this day looms again. Six years later, there remains a hole in my city — a hole in my country — a hole in my heart. When I sat down to write, I thought that I was still not ready to speak about that day, to sift through the ashes for meaning. As I began to write, though, I made a shocking discovery.

It’s true — I am not ready.

But that doesn’t matter.

That is the first important lesson of the 21st century: We will face severe challenges for which we may not be ready. The challenges aren’t going to go away, though, so we have to get ready. Despite what the movies tell us, failure is an option — in fact, it’s the default option. We are going to have to choose success; we are going to have to work for it. Last year I laid out what I see as some of the dangers and pitfalls we might face and what might help us get past them. I remain proud of that speech, perhaps inordinately proud of it. But it didn’t take long to knock me down a peg. Within a few days of Convocation, several different people — students and faculty — had told me that they had appreciated the speech but that I had scared them sleepless. This disappointed me, because it meant that I had missed my mark. I had hoped to navigate the thin space between raising an alarm and causing a panic. Looking ahead, it’s a good thing to be a little alarmed. It’s a terrible thing to be panicked.

And this is the second lesson of the 21st century, as hard in its own way as the first: You cannot live in fear. You must not live in fear. Stimulate an animal’s fear centers continuously, and eventually it will die. Stimulate a free society’s fear centers continuously, and eventually it will wither.

We have spent the last six years cowering in a corner, huddling in our fear. It’s unhealthy for each and every one of us. It’s unbecoming of a great nation and a great people. It’s simply bad posture. Now, today, it is time to wake up. It is time to step up. It is time to grow up. My generation and the one preceding mine, we’re asking a lot of you. You’re being asked to grow up in the hardest century we’ve ever faced. You’re being asked to step up and shepherd this fractious and fearful world through fire and fury to a destination none can even imagine yet. It’s hard and it’s frightening and it is not fair. That doesn’t matter. It’s what is.

There will be those — there already are those — who will offer to take this burden from you. “Give yourself over to me”, they claim, “and I will tame the night for you. I will face down the bogeyman, I will guard you and keep you safe.” The best of these will be merely misguided. Most will be outright deceitful. No one can grow up for you. No one can live your life for you. That won’t stop them from trying to tempt you into surrender. They will bang the drum and rattle the saber and do everything in their power to convince you that your rightful place is prone on the ground, helpless and afraid. They will attempt to buy your birthright by selling you fear.

Fear of other people taking your things.

Fear of other people taking your job.

Fear of other people taking your life.

Fear of other people, period.

Fear of being different, of being outcast, of being alone.

Fear of other opinions and other beliefs and other faiths.

Fear of the different, of the alien, of the Other — of anything not them.

Simple fear.

They will tell you that there is only one path, that you must make yourself a smaller target by becoming less than yourself. We must, we are told, jettison the lessons of four hundred years of liberty. We must, we are told, give up our quaint notions of due process and restraint and fair play. We are told, “Dissent divides”. We are told that asking questions costs lives. We are told these things, and in our fear, we pretend that they are true. But in our hearts, we know that they are not.

Fear lives in the oldest, darkest corners of the brain — parts far older than humanity. Like everything else, fear persists because it offered an evolutionary advantage. But it never evolved for creatures like us, who think and remember. Those who appeal to your fear are trying to short-circuit your brain. They don’t want you questioning, because questioning gives you context. They don’t want you learning, because learning gives you options. Above all, they don’t want you thinking, because thinking gives you freedom. They want you reacting, worrying, following, fearing. It is a blatant confession of a bankruptcy of solutions; it could not be more obvious or insulting; and yet, amazingly, every day we fall for it.

You cannot live in fear. You must not live in fear.

What is the alternative? Should you go through the day in an optimistic fog, counting on the world to be always sunshine and daisies? Of course not. We face the hardest century. The world is going to be sharp edges and deep chasms. But consider this: When suddenly dropped into a frightening situation, the most primal instinct is to close your eyes and hope it goes away. It’s a very natural, a very human reaction. But closing your eyes doesn’t make the danger go away. In fact, the only safe course is to open your eyes and face the frightening thing. Even if the smart move is to run, you’re going to want to run with your eyes open.

Your would-be guardians and rulers have always been here, since our species huddled in the darkness, vulnerable and afraid; and for a time, they served a role. They interposed themselves between the sleeping masses and the vast unknowable night. Now a bright bonfire called civilization blazes and pushes back the night. Yet the fearmongers persist, hovering at the edge of the light, on the shore of the shadows, unwilling to come closer. They fear the darkness but they hate the light, because it reveals that we don’t need them any longer. Seeing the fire hold back the night, they scream that it will attract monsters and must be extinguished — that we must go back to cowering in darkness and terror, trusting only in them. But the fire doesn’t attract danger. It allows us to see danger coming and to prepare for it and thus avoid it. Our system of justice and liberty doesn’t threaten our lives; it makes them possible. It lets us see what truly is.

Despite what you’ve been told, most people on this planet are not out to kill you. Most people on this planet don’t hate you for your freedoms, whatever that means. They don’t hate you for your wealth or even for your actions. They don’t hate you at all. Just like us, most people desire little more than the opportunity to create a better life and the peace to enjoy the fruits of that labor.

Be wary of those who tell you differently. Distrust those who ring the alarm bell so loudly that you cannot think. Ask yourself: What are they afraid of? What do they fear you will discover? Fear is a powerful and dangerous drug on the body politic. It can be used to strip people of their defenses, of their dignity, of their principles. Using fear to bludgeon you into assent, people will act in your name to do the most dreadful of deeds: To abrogate elections, to spy illegally, to detain indefinitely. To discriminate and intimidate, to torture and to execute. In pursuit of imaginary security, they will demand that you surrender your privacy, your identity, your opinions, your self. They will tell you, “We cannot afford outdated customs such as judicial oversight or checks and balances or free debate.” They will say to you, “To fight the monsters, we must become monsters ourselves.” Don’t let them fool you.

We are stronger than that.

We are smarter than that.

We are better than that.

And you cannot live in fear forever.

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