Fear, Being Anticipatory, is Always Without Knowledge

It is the same path she’s always followed. It’s grown so familiar she can walk it in her sleep. Most days, she does.

Then one December day, slipping into the groove is more of a stumble. Cold seeps under her cuffs. With the sun so far, the chill has no escape, not up or out, so it stays. The fall turns her neck. Looking up now, she sees how deep the trench, how far the sky.

She remembers the open place up there. Unmapped, daunting, the choices had radiated out in all directions. Wearing this furrow into the uneven terrain had seemed the most reasonable way to proceed.

No doubt someone told her then that ambiguity’s promise eclipses certainty’s price. Only now can she grasp what was lost in the exchange.

With damp walls at her hands and back, she presses in. She begins the climb.

It’s a strange thing about the human mind that, despite its capacity and its abundant freedom, its default is to function in a repeating pattern. It watches the moon and the planets, the days and seasons, the cycle of life and death all going around in an endless loop, and unconsciously, believing itself to be nature, the mind echoes these cycles. Its thoughts go in loops, repeating patterns established so long ago we often can’t remember their origin, or why they ever made sense to us. And even when these loops fail over and over again to bring us to a desirable place, even while they entrap us, and make us feel anciently tired of ourselves, and we sense that sticking to their well-worn path means we’ll miss contact with the truth every single time, we still find it nearly impossible to resist them. We call these patterns of thought our “nature” and resign ourselves to being governed by them as if they are the result of a force outside of us, the way that the seas are governed — rather absurdly, when one thinks about it — by a distant and otherwise irrelevant moon.

And yet it is unquestionably within our power to break the loop; to “violate” what presents itself as our nature by choosing to think — and to see, and act — in a different way. It may require enormous effort and focus. And yet for the most part it isn’t laziness that stops us from breaking these loops, it’s fear. In a sense, one could say that fear is the otherwise irrelevant moon that we allow to govern the far larger nature of our minds.


 Novelist Nicole Krauss responding to Vincent van Gogh’s 1884 letter to his brother.

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9 thoughts on “Fear, Being Anticipatory, is Always Without Knowledge”

  1. As someone with PTSD who has struggled off and on with anxiety and depression, I can attest to the “loopy” nature of fear and getting into thinking patterns and behaviors that are all but automatic. It takes a massive effort to keep focused on not allowing this to happen, particularly when one has decided to forgo medication, while fighting the lure of its comforts far too often.

  2. For the last month and a half I have been learning a new and challenging job, and all I can do right now is just put one foot in front of the other. I am beginning to feel like I am training my body and brain to be automatic. In a way I am, but the job also demands creativity and awareness which often feel at odds with the other demands. There is always the fear of adding one too many things to the wobbling tower of newly learned behaviors. The fear that this new thing will bring the whole thing crashing down. Taking risks brings the beauty and art into any situation, the yes in place of the not yet and opens life into possibilities that are not even seen from the carefully chosen situations that we think will keep us safe, but only end up closing us in. Thanks for this post. I needed some reminding.

    1. Thanks for sharing this. We walk this tension between automatic and fresh. How do you know when you mastered the basics and can choose to improvise? I think this is true even for unlearning patterned thinking. Developing new responses, ironically, requires commitment to a rigorous routine of creative responsiveness. Good luck at the new job!

    1. Oh, you are strong and brave and have all the tools. You write with such raw insight, and you have a powerful commitment to living well. Write your way through the cravings and you’ll get there.

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