Fear before there are words

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It may take years for the fear to bear fruit, but the ego has something in preparation for a future time.

Photo: Matthias Heil /Unsplash

By: Shierry Weber Nicholsen

To move from silence to speaking requires a person – perhaps a wiser part of ourselves – who can hear and receive our experience. As we are heard, we become able to hear our experience ourselves. At first, however, is the silence, the shapeless experience undoubtedly both beautiful and terrifying. Silence sometimes means that there are no words yet.

This article is taken from Shierry Weber Nicholsen’s book “Love of nature and the end of the world”, A psychological exploration of how the love of nature can coexist in our psyche with apathy towards environmental destruction.

Fear touches us even more deeply than felt love, yet it is plunged into darkness. It is not just tacit; it is speechless. A friend tells me that she cannot describe her feeling for the natural world as love. It’s not love but fear, she said. She is simply amazed at the sight of a heron lifting its wing. Amazed, she is unable to say more.

Partly, fear has no words because it is totally private, not “for the show.” But it’s more than private. It is involuntary mutism. The fact that we rarely find the sense of wonder in our discussions of the environment may be due in part to our reduced capacity for wonder, but it is also due to the inherent silence to which wonder leads us. We can’t even put words into it ourselves. It’s no surprise that we don’t tell others about it.

Fear is the feeling of an encounter with a presence greater than ourselves, mysterious, frightening and wonderful, numinous, sacred. It is the meaning of something that we are not able to contain in our capacity for thought and speech. In fear, the ego is felt only as something small and incompetent, speechless, perhaps honored by the experience but unequal to it.

When a particular emotion has never been felt before, it will not immediately give its meaning, and the psyche responds in amazement.

Fear makes us feel amazed, stunned, struck dumb. Joseph Campbell’s tenure aesthetic stop, which denotes something similar, conveys that meaning. We stopped in our tracks. The words surprised and stunned both suggest a blow to one’s normal mental functioning, such as being literally stunned or struck or losing one’s normal orientation (like in a maze). In his book “Dream LifeDonald Meltzer, the influential psychoanalyst, tells the story of a little boy whose therapist, in an unusual gesture, wiped his face. The boy sat there “astonished”. How should we understand this? Meltzer’s quotes from the Talmud, the book of Jewish law: “Stand near the dying, for when the soul sees the abyss it is amazed. For the soul of the dying, death seems an “unbearably new” experience. When a particular emotion has never been felt before, it will not immediately make sense, says Meltzer, and the psyche responds in amazement.

The notion of an experience that does not immediately give its meaning is the key to the silence of wonder in the face of the natural world. As fear stops us in our tracks, it is not the end of our experience but rather a beginning. Either way, we intuitively feel that the experience is extraordinarily rich and will require vast transformations in our mental structures as we assimilate it. Our intuition of the long and unknown process that awaits us brings us to a halt.

A friend told me that when she first saw Cézanne’s painting “La Baigneuse” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, she felt the figure in the painting as emerging from the canvas and coming towards her, then retreating, then reappearing. She marvels at Cézanne’s ability to shape space in this way. “It was almost as if a lightning bolt entered me,” she said, recounting the experience. “A certain mystery, something entered me so hard it shook me to the bone.” Overwhelmed, she burst into tears and ran out of the museum, feeling that she could never do anything like it. But over the decades that followed, this experience of awe entered its own unfolding as a painter. “Man Rising from Space” is his own name for Cézanne’s painting. In his story, we see the painter emerging from the experience of fear.

What allows something in us to develop the potential inherent in the experience of fear is the same process that allows the child to develop – things are put into words, or otherwise symbolized, by a sufficiently spacious mind. to contain or contain the experience. In Wilfred Bion’s model of mental development, the mother, identifying with her baby’s experience in reverie, “holds” it for the child and gives it meaning in her own mind before communicating it again. to the child. Through this process, the child becomes able to symbolize the experience and eventually put it into words. The emotional experience thus becomes usable for growth and development.

As the evolving energies of the unbearably new experience do their work, we become able to put the experience into words. “I’ve never told anyone about it before, but I think you’ll understand,” poet Kathleen Raine’s mother told her, prefacing her to recount an experience of fear. She recognized the opportunity – a person who would “get it” – and she made the decision to put words into the unspoken. By making ourselves heard, we become able at the same time to hear ourselves, to make the effort to put into words and to recognize a person who hears. Courage and receptivity grow together. It may take years for the fear to bear fruit, but the ego has something in preparation for a future time.

The process initiated by the encounter with the numinous is not without suffering. In some ways, fear and disaster are not that different. The experience of fear is so acute because we are at the limit of consciousness, at the limit of our ability to tolerate the encounter with something so much greater than our present self, at the limit of our ability to tolerate our own humility and weakness. . The unbearably new with its potential remains unbearable until it has been assimilated. How long will my friend endure her meeting with Cézanne’s “Bather”? She burst into tears and ran out of the museum.

The experience of fear is so acute because we are at the very edge of consciousness, at the edge of our ability to tolerate encountering something so much greater than our present self.

Jung claims that the embodiment of the greater Self in the individual self occurs through suffering. The Bantu peoples of Africa say that unless you find a way to take your tears and add them to the chain of tears around your heart, your suffering will be in vain. Finding the meaning of suffering is the process of finding the words for the experience one has had, inchoatly, with admiration – but this process is none other than the process by which one develops the ability to put words into words. on experience.

Losing the capacity for wonder means mutism of a different kind – dumbness which signals an inability to suffer. The ego needs a certain strength to endure the fear and the suffering that accompanies it, a strength that comes from the experience of being heard and the struggle for words. Without this strength, it is not possible to use the experience of fear. The suffering will then either be totally avoided or it will cause a miscarriage and turn into bitterness, cynicism and despair.

The loss of the capacity for admiration is not necessarily a permanent loss. As essayist and philosopher Susan Griffin points out, the desire for emotional truth remains, yet hidden under silence and silence. What is not said contains the potential not only for great suffering, but also for numinousness, meaning, evolution and development of human beings, individually and collectively.


Shierry Weber Nicholsen is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Seattle and a former faculty member in the Masters of Environment and Community program at Antioch University in Seattle, teaching environmental philosophy and psychology. She is the author of “Exact imagination, late work: on the aesthetics of Adorno” and “Love for nature and the end of the world: the tacit dimensions of environmental concern», From which this article is taken.


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