A weird thing, fear: it’s what we knew as children, alone in our beds, terrified that the monster beneath would jump out and eat us up. It’s what we courted as older kids, on roller coasters and in speeding cars, or at scary or violent movies. Even as adults, fear made us feel more fully ‘alive’ in a way we didn’t often feel in our safe American lives.
We love this manufactured fear, the way it keeps real fear at bay, but tell ya what: It does nothing for sadness, in whose dark kingdom we seem to have been dwelling for this whole last decade.
There’s a great passage in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, a coming-of-age story of the legendary King Arthur, once an ordinary boy called Wart. That Wart is the rightful heir to the throne of England nobody knows, except the wise old wizard Merlin, who appears one day, with his pointy hat and his moon-and-stars cloak, to walk him toward adulthood.
Later in the story, he comes upon his young charge in a state of sadness and tells him this:
The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then: to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting…
Me I’d like to learn Italian, like my friend Bobbie is doing. Or Physics, since I somehow missed Physics in high school. Or maybe embroidery which I haven’t done since I tried stitching my 5th grade teacher’s initials onto a pretty handkerchief for her and ended up sewing them tightly to the lap of my skirt.
But I love the idea that learning focuses you outward – not inward toward your own small self, but outward, toward the intricate beauty of this world, and all those other worlds beyond it.
How many were there did Carl Sagan used to say? “Billions?” We made fun of him but he was a cool guy who died too young and Cosmos was a really wonderful show. Remember it?