welcoming flowers in the face of fear

These days, many sad and worrisome things are happening in various places all over the planet. Human beings are committing arbitrary (or non-arbitrary) acts of violence, hurting and killing other human beings – from random individuals to groups of dozens and hundreds[1]. Political structures that we were accustomed to consider solid foundations for a free society are crumbling[2] – from erosive tendencies across Europe and the European Union[3] to the political rise of obviously unpredictable and most likely dangerous individuals in a growing number of countries around the world. Combine these events and developments with the general feelings of unsteadiness and the specific challenges arising from global trends such as climate change, migration, or digitization, and with the poignant lack of common, convincing, and practically workable narratives and solutions – and you get a mix that has plenty in store to make even the most resilient mind feel a whiff of fear of what humanity’s future might look like.

As always, people’s reactions to what is happening vary widely[4]. There are those who find confirmation of some conspiracy hypothesis they’d been harbouring for a long time – happily offloading the blame to whoever they believe is behind the conspiracy. There are those who worry about the times we live in and turn to doomsaying – predicting various dire futures outhorroring the darkest periods of human history. There are those who compare and conclude that, after all, our times are not worse than others before – encouraging sanity and a balanced perspective on what’s going on. And there are those who advocate active beautification of our surroundings – distributing (and demanding) more pictures of sunsets,  butterflies, or serene landscapes in dreamy colours. And finally, of course, there are those who are silent and do not join the cacophonous debates raging across media – social and other.

I hasten to admit that I, myself, have been in all those camps. When I blame, I tend to blame those who do not use controversy or conflict for mutual learning[5] – even if their conspiracy is at best unintentional (and as a consequence, hopefully, not always effective). Being a historian by training, I’ve looked at many of those past periods of distress and warned against forms of violence that we’ve not yet agreed to contain[6]. I, too, have pleaded for reason and its manifold virtues[7]; I, too, have conjured up the beauties of our world to counter its atrocities[8]; and I, too, have had times when I chose silence (and I once even wrote about the value of embracing silence[9]). So, all in all, I wouldn’t dare to look down on any of these reactions – or praise any one of them as supreme. This is also not what this post is about.

This post is also not about the horrendous perversions that each of these attitudes can morph into if overdone or overstretched: The vicious anger born from finding enemies to blame, the smirking pride of always having known things better, the distant ignorance of overemphasising similarities (or differences), the lush indulgence in distracting sensory experiences, the jealous arrogance of never saying (or doing) anything even remotely wrong. The resulting characters of zealous crusaders, grumpy cassandras, aloof philosophers, spaced-out plant-huggers, or tight-lipped renunciants have not only often not contributed to making the world a better place, but some of them have sometimes also left quite brutal marks on their surroundings.

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What this post is about – and please accept apologies that I couldn’t get there any sooner: Whatever our reaction to whatever lights a spark of fear in our minds and hearts: In each and every case, there are two distinct parts to this reaction – that, unfortunately, we tend to conflate and confuse. On the one hand, our reaction is what translates into actions (or non-actions) in the external world around us – fighting the culprits, tightening laws, improving information and education, planting trees, or retreating to a mountain cave. All with the aim to calm, persuade, lure, or destroy what we see as the enemies provoking our fears. On the other hand, however, this very same reaction is an attempt of our mind at internal self-protection – our rational mind’s struggle for sorting our right vs. wrong or good vs. evil, our moral mind’s effort to maintain integrity and responsibility, our calm mind’s aspiration to stay unperturbed by attraction and repulsion alike, our sensual mind’s desire to abandon itself to comfort and bliss, and our abstract mind’s endeavour to transcend all distinctions. All with the aim to relax, ease, transform, and liberate what we see as the contraints obstructing our well-being.

In short: Whatever we say or do when a spark of fear – or, for that matter, any other sudden emotional interference – assails us, is as much an inward-facing scheme to consolidate our mind’s consistency as it is an outward-reaching energy driving us towards doing (or not doing) something in the external world around us[10]. Being aware of this, for example when we see others reacting differently from ourselves, is a supremely helpful way to not get caught up in squabbles about what is an appropriate (or inappropriate) reaction in the face of fear and uncertainty – squabbles that, rather than solving anything, add more layers of mistrust and conflict to our web of relationships. Maybe what seems like a lash out to me is a deescalating move for you. And what feels like palliative escapism to you is a fortifying encouragement for me. So, first of all, let’s be friendly with each others’ different reactions – maybe what we see as a breech of conduct, as a scandal, or as a crime is just somebody else’s mind desperately trying to come to grips with an assault of fear.

At the same time, let’s not accept violence. Let’s watch ourselves and be weary of the point when inner protection threatens to spiral into outer aggression. Let’s help those struggling to find their balance at this tipping point, so their inner protection is strengthened, safeguarding and sheltering themselves and others around them. Let’s make use of anything that fosters dialogue, mutual understanding, and joint problem solving around the big issues we’re facing for our times. Let’s never underestimate the power of our internal views in sorting out our external controversies, and let’s never disdain the ability of external deeds to soothe our internal troubles.

Let’s always welcome flowers in the face of fear.


[1] It feels futile to single out any specific event – those following any kind of media these days will have their own mental list of what happened where. – In addition, I feel the need to apologise for the heavily self-referential nature of the following footnotes – it just seems that many thoughts coming up over the next paragraphs have already been on my mind at other times, so I want to give you the benefit of finding them. If you’re not interested, just ignore the footnotes and links.BACK TO TEXT

[2] I wrote about this phenomenon here [retrieved Jul 27th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[3] For some of my thoughts about this, see my post about Brexit [retrieved Jul 27th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[4] I deliberately refrain from giving examplary sources for the following “types” of reactions – each and every one of you will easily recognise people in their own social environment promoting one (or several) of the views painted below. BACK TO TEXT

[5] After the Paris attacks in November 2015, I wrote at length about the value of disagreement (and the danger of losing our ability to deal with disagreements) – read more here [retrieved Jul 27th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[6] See my reflections on violence [retrieved Jul 27th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[7] For example in this (German language) post regarding the discussions about refugees in Germany last summer [retrieved Jul 27th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[8] As in this post about the beauty of the web (which is still awaiting its announced second part – which I promise to write one day) [retrieved Jul 27th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[9] Here [retrieved Jul 27th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[10] I recognise that there’s host of spiritual as well as psychological “schools” claiming that there is little to no difference between internal and external anyways. In the broad scheme of things, I tend to agree with this view. However, at the same time, I believe there’s merit in making the distinction here and now, so please bear with me.BACK TO TEXT

Respond to welcoming flowers in the face of fear

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