Fear, hope, identity, death

A few weeks ago, I was selected to teach an online summer course for Michigan State’s Center for Integrative Studies in the Arts & Humanities. The course, which I proposed back in the fall, is on literature, culture, and identities, and my iteration of the class will focus dystopian fiction. My goal is to take a range of dystopian worlds and to use the horrors in them to talk about the things we might (or do) fear for our future. I want to use that fear to talk about what we believe, what we value, and, in many ways, who we are. And despite the fact that I’ll largely be talking about cultural fears in the course, I think this connection of fear and identity holds true at the individual level as well.

There’s a line in The Hunger Games, one of the books I’m going to teach, about how hope is the one thing that’s stronger than fear, but I’m not sure I believe that’s true. Hope and fear are so intertwined: we hope we won’t be subjected to our fears; we fear we might not achieve the things we hope for. One reason we hope for a better tomorrow is because we’re afraid of the realities of today, or of what today might one day become. To me, whether we talk about a hope or a fear seems to largely depend on out outlook, on whether we’re glass-half-empty or glass-half-full people.

When I was 19, I went through a period of intense anxiety and depression. I was struggling with my college classes, faced for the first time with subject matter that I didn’t understand instinctively, and I was unsure about what career I wanted to pursue. I had recently broken up with my emotionally damaging boyfriend but was uncertain what my worth was if I didn’t find it through him. I had my family and a few friends, but I was too ashamed to let any of them see how much I was struggling, so I lied and hid and tried to pretend things were all right when they so clearly weren’t.

Back then, my glass wasn’t half-empty—it was completely empty, with the last few drops of water evaporating off. Despite hating my major and my ex, I couldn’t move on from either one, because I couldn’t imagine a new future for myself. I couldn’t look forward; I lost my hope, but I also lost most of my fear. Around the same time I’d developed a completely illogical paranoia of driving underneath overpasses, convinced they were going to fall on me, but during those months I was completely unaffected by that possibility. I hoped for nothing, I feared for nothing. I thought I was nothing.

The thing that finally pulled me through? One day I took things too far, and it made me afraid. Some people might say it was a hope that things could get better, but I’ve always identified it as a fear of how much worse they could be.

These days, I trust in the structural integrity of overpasses and I know, more or less, who I am. But I’m still a glass-half-empty girl, and for the past month, I’ve gone through a nightly panic session during which I become overwhelmed with the certainty of my eventual death. It happens just as I’m about to fall asleep, and it wakes me up completely. It’s cost me more than a few hours of missed rest. Its regularity is getting more than a bit annoying. I find myself staying up later and later trying to combat it, using the logic that if I go to bed exhausted (or if I simply put it off long enough), I can escape the nightly panic. So far it’s not working.

I’m not sure what any of this says about me.

I’m looking forward to teaching the class this summer, and I’m curious to see what the students will make of the topics I’ve chosen. I hope they’ll see the connections to the world we live in and to their own realities, but I’m also afraid (see what I did there?) of what connections they might find. There are countless futures that we can envision, and even more that we cannot. There’s so much we can change in this world, whether we strive for or work against, but it’s not easy—and if the mass of dystopian literature tells us anything, it’s that it never has been.

5 Comments

  • Jaime R. Wood says:

    I can totally relate to this on many levels, Kathryn. First, I love dystopian fiction and would love to teach it! Second, I went through a period of time in my early twenties when I was terrified to drive on the freeway, so much so that on a few occasions I would brake suddenly for no other reason than because I couldn’t clearly see where the road ahead of me was going. My palms would sweat and my heart would pound loudly. Talk about taking symbolism too far! I think this panic related to the bad relationship I was in because as soon as I was out of it I was back to driving several miles over the speed limit on the highway. As for fear of dying, my husband experiences that fairly regularly. I’m just pretending it’ll never happen. Whatever it takes to survive.

    • It’s so strange sometimes how the various aspects of our lives combine to affect us. I worked a job that summer where I tracked brownstone sites in about five counties here in Michigan, and I spent a ton of time on the road, driving from place to place with only bad radio stations to keep me company. I wonder how much of that new paranoia, for me, came from spending too much time in the car. Though then again, I think if I hadn’t been dealing with other things at the same time, I’d likely have been fine as well.

      On the fear of dying, I’ve gone through similar things a few times in my life, usually around the time I begin to understand my mortality in a new or different way. When I was a kid it was a fear of nothingness more than anything else. Then, when I was a bit older, it was a fear of certain horrific ways of dying and a consideration of what I might do or feel or think during each. Now, it seems to be a fear of no longer experiencing all the things in this world that I love, and not being around the people I love. Any tips on how to pretend it’ll never happen? (Also, I love the last line of your comment.)

  • I love the idea of using dystopian fiction as a jumping off place to talk about hope and fear. To me, hope is the antidote to fear, the courage to face your fears. You fear what’s going to happen, but hope that your expectations are wrong because humanity is braver, stronger, more empathetic than you believe. (If we’re talking dystopia and the future.)

    • In some ways it’s about dystopias and the future, but in many ways it’s about the here and now as we look forward to where we might actually end up—whether it’s us here to see it, or our kids, or our grandkids…

      But one thing that I find fascinating about dystopia is its connection to utopia. In these fictional worlds—and in this one—there were people who thought that was the best way, who said, “This. This will fix our problems.”

  • Jaime R. Wood says:

    Sorry, Kathryn, I don’t think my way of pretending it’ll never happen will work for most people, or even me, for long. I basically just keep myself really busy thinking about the next thing I want to do, and then I get started trying to do it. That leaves very little time for thinking about death, or anything really. :)

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