Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach, “Afraid Ancestral”

Panic is learned, I believe.

It could be natural. Maybe humanity has an instinct to fear the unfamiliar. —Still, there are babies radiating brightness, trying to say hi to every other person, animal, plant.— Maybe human reason creates a sense of familiarity over time, in order to naturally tell what to defend, what to avoid. —This is utter nonsense. It’s used informally nowadays to defend the most unnatural ideas, ideas such as “the homeland” or “the race.”—

Panic is more than likely learned. What is unfamiliar becomes familiar through learning, and perhaps panic would dissolve in all cases if we were fully resolved to ending our own ignorance and risking our prior commitments. Nothing is so simple, of course. There are things those we love have learned, and even if we don’t appreciate their knowledge immediately, we learn the same, wondering if we’ve become the exact same people as our parents. We learn a deep sense of fear. Mom is afraid / the sky will fall:

Afraid Ancestral (from The Many Names for Mother)
Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach

Mom is afraid
the sky will fall
because it's fallen
before
and there
is no recovering
from the weight 
of clouds.

Mom is afraid / the sky will fall / because it’s fallen / before — this is the hard case, if not the hardest. If I knew anything about how to reassure my parents, I would be a literal angel. They saw something, were shaken, and had every right to be shaken. I can label that irrational all I want. I’m going to be shaken, too.

Yet, there are ways I know. Differently, if not better. If I move away from the hardest case, a case like the shattering of what you’ve built your life around, I can see difficult cases where fear operates, for better or worse. I may even be able to think through them, ever so slightly.

*

One of them involves fear being useful. The son of Pericles in Xenophon’s Memorabilia III.5 worries that Athenians lack pride, and as a result, are faltering on the battlefield. Socrates—yes, that Socrates—says confidence isn’t always best for good order—maybe the Athenians need to be scared. Maybe fear will get them to be disciplined, try harder, achieve things thought impossible.

I’ve wondered about this for a while now. Fear does help us learn when we’re kids: it gets us to see the value of rules. It gets us to respect others and be mindful of their concerns. For a citizenry or an army, it serves as powerful motivation. People can build the strongest sort of courage by being scared of failing the people fighting with them.

But no one would describe Socrates himself—a man who didn’t blink in the face of being executed—as fearful. One might say, as I do, that he’s pained by ignorance. But scared of it?

The possibility of a completely fearless life does not seem to be without cost. Socrates did not stay at home and attend to his wife and children. Xanthippe for her part holds Socrates’ baby, utterly shattered in the Phaedo.

*

The sky will fall / because it’s fallen before is so much larger than mere utility. It’s a lesson which scars and stays. When we’re looking for someone to start a family with, we get scarred. We’re mistrusted, not fully sure of love, not able to communicate or be communicated with all within the span of successful relationships, let alone unsuccessful ones.

I’m not speaking here of the kind of trauma which causes brothers and sisters to never speak to each other again. This is something weirder, where one opens up one’s life to be shared and then feels like no one wants what you have to offer. It’s not insignificant, but it’s a fear and a hurt which accompany any attempt at a relationship.

Still, despite its “everydayness,” I feel like it might be justly described in somewhat cataclysmic language, as if the sky has fallen. No one should have to be so vulnerable just so others can reject them. It’s like the ages where people arranged marriages for the sake of property or status had something correct. This marrying for “love” thing would entail that a lot of people got hurt by making it an excuse for drama.

No one’s identity should depend on how desirable they are. Maybe this isn’t a big deal as regards a functional family or society, but it does seem right to fear losing oneself in a tangle of slights not meant to injure you personally, but reject your person all the same.

*

The sky will fall / because it’s fallen / before… there / is no recovering / from the weight of clouds.

We bring the books we’ve read to these lines, and that doesn’t do “the weight of clouds” justice.

We bring our pains from our relationships—maybe even our own familial trials—and still, no.

How to grapple with this fear? How to grasp what must be learned?

One might say to watch Mom carefully, who knows the sky will fall and has survived. There is power and faith in that view. I’ve seen enough to know that not everyone who survives does it well.

Of course one who loves will watch Mom carefully. But maybe we should watch ourselves just as much when we deal with “the weight of clouds.” Perhaps, for us, it was less the sky falling, and more our assuming the sky was the ground itself. And perhaps we plummeted, right through the cloud itself.

It’s that perspective which we resist. We more or less skip to “we’re becoming our parents,” treating the experience of how we established ourselves as an illusion. That, I think, is the mistake, the mistake which in some cases can break us in deep ways.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: you can’t possibly understand your own values enough. They will look like your parents’ values and draw you into some ironic situations, sometimes cruel and terrible ones. But the point where the sky fell for them is not quite the point where the sky falls for you. “The weight of clouds” is our weight, our individual weight, brought forth by the fact we love on our own terms, for our own reasons. Would that family understood that, instead of seeing all love as theirs.

1 Comment

  1. ” But the point where the sky fell for them is not quite the point where the sky falls for you ”

    Reading that made me feel as if you’ve searched through my soul and found a hidden scar, and then healed it.
    Thank you.

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