April 05, 2008

Who’s Afraid of Nothing?

Fear of nothing provides the title for my new book, so what is it about? Who’s afraid of nothing?

Actually, everyone is. Fear of nothing is part of the human condition. It is the kind of thing philosophers like to consider, because it can’t be adequately understood without a lot of deep thought. And yet, as hard as it is to explain, it is easy to see that something is up.

As Sara puts it, “We always have to be doing something . . .” Please read Sara’s whole paragraph on the subject:

A Fear of Nothing

Or look at this way: When a room is so empty that you can hear the echoes from every wall, what is it that makes it seem eerie? When you tune in a television station and it’s nothing but static, why does that seem creepy? When you go into a store and half the shelves are empty, why do you leave so quickly?

Since I’m a shaman, I’m going to go out a limb and say that there is an explanation for all this — that it has to do with the way we humans are sometimes more like lizards than is good for us.

I suppose that sounds freaky, but it’s literally true. Deep down inside the human brain, the actual core of the human brain is a brain that is virtually identical to the brain of a lizard. It thinks lizard thoughts, primal thoughts that are never any more profound than ideas of comfort and continued existence. And it is so nearly identical in size, form, and function to the brain of a lizard that scientists actually call it the reptilian brain.

Some say the reptilian brain focuses entirely on survival, but it doesn’t do so in a way we would recognize. Our human brains entertain all kinds of lofty, paradoxical thoughts about fighting for survival, but the reptilian brain has no such concept. The closest idea we have to the reptilian-brain idea of survival is more like continued existence, which doesn’t sound very exciting.

Yet the reptilian brain is also the center of ideas about comfort, and this is the exact same idea of comfort that makes us sit one way in a chair, but not another way. When we move to a more comfortable position, it is the same way a lizard does it. When you stop to take a stone out of your shoe, there really isn’t any thought involved — at least not till after you’ve already taken off the shoe and turned it over to dump out the stone.

And so, we can learn about our reptilian brains by examining our thoughts about comfort. By looking at our comfort zones and the things discomfort makes us do.

Fear of nothing, then, is one of the most basic, primal forms of discomfort. If you feel uncomfortable because something is empty or seems hollow, that is fear of nothing. If you feel like you need something to do, that is fear of nothing. If you are always looking for more, that is fear of nothing.

And if you have so much stuff that the stuff is crowding you and so much to do that you have not the slightest chance of getting it all done, that is the ultimate proof that fear of nothing has an effect on your life.

This is from the draft of Fear of Nothing:

If you are like most people, all you have to do to prove that the fear of nothing exists is to sit with a once-valued possession next to a wastebasket. The possession to choose for this demonstration will depend on what your possessions mean to you. Most likely, it is something you have saved for an extended period, not because you have had a way to use it, but because of what it once meant. For someone, it could be a fish bowl that last housed fish some twenty years ago. For someone else, it might be yesterday’s newspaper. For another person, it might be the decorations from a party. Whatever the specific item, your rational thoughts tell you that you should drop the item into the wastebasket. The fear, though, tells you to wait — then prompts you to come up with a reason to keep the item. If you listen to the voice of fear, you might as well jump headlong into the wastebasket yourself if you throw this old possession away. Logically you know otherwise, yet the fear is hard to ignore.

Logically, we know we ought to have only the possessions we can actually use, and a schedule that contains no more tasks than we can actually do. There is no benefit whatsoever in the excess things and excess things to do. On the contrary, these things worry us. So what is so hard about getting rid of them?

Well, fear of nothing is what makes it hard. When we try to cut back, when we think about having an empty shelf and an hour with nothing in particular to do, there is a reptilian thought in the deepest recesses of our brains that says, “Not less. More!

And so, completely logical approaches to clutter and time management are doomed to fail. Logic means nothing to fear of nothing, because there is no logic or rationality in the reptilian brain. If you want to get a handle on clutter and a busy schedule, you don’t really need logic. What you need is to change the way you do your life so that it is comfortable again.

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