This time of year, the general public tends to pay more attention than usual to witches. Much of it is lighthearted – halloween costumes and memes about where to park your broom. Some of it is spiritual – adherents of the modern religions of Wicca and neopaganism discussing symbolic and supernatural beliefs. And some of it is historical – analyzing the witch trials of past centuries and wondering how they apply, ethically, to modern day intolerance and violence.
Within all these discussions, usually unnamed and unexamined, is the framing metaquestion: what should we fear? And what should we do about that which we fear?
Historic witch trials (from a time when witches were believed to be evil agents of Satan) reveals how we humans always try to externalize badness and goodness, so we can exterminate badness and excuse ourselves for our lack of goodness. So we have heroes and villains, neither of them very human, but rather idols and symbols of our fears. I honestly think the patriarchy’s fear of females is as strong as it ever was. When theare of ****TRIGGER WARNING RAPE, INCEST**** raping a stepsister, or doctors raping a teenage girl in the hospital for cancer, or of border agents raping a pregnant young refugee, and , what does that say about us as a species? Or a culture? As Tallessyn Grenfell-Lee says, “ ”
The more I have studied conflict and peacebuilding, the more I have studied feminism, and the longer I have been a parent, the more I keep coming back to the importance of fear. A certain amount/kind of fear is a gift. Fear keeps us alive: fear points out to us when we are in danger so that we can try to avoid situations and people that would harm us.
But here’s the problem: chronic fear devours us and turns us into violent, frantic, desperate infants.
Here’s the other problem: we are all swimming in chronic fear.
Of course, trauma is an obvious cause of chronic fear. Children who experience abandonment, neglect, or abuse struggle to develop basic mental and emotional stability. Most girls and women experience misogynist violence of various forms #too, and most women I know seem somewhere between a little traumatized and severely traumatized. Boys and men are crippled by the way society beats vulnerability and authentic emotional expression out of them, and so most men seem more or less traumatized to me as well, despite having more privilege, as a class, than females. After all, the vast majority of– against females, against other males, and as suicide. Then our culture normalizes this violence and prohibits us from responding to it in healthy ways or getting the treatment and support we need to heal, so… hey presto, traumatized, terrified society.
Add to that cultural trauma soup, our world floods us with fear, from the grindingly inescapable collapse of civilization in a #ClimateApocalypse, to the collapse of our (flawed, apparently frail) systems of governance under the weight of greedy oligarchs and corrupt politicians, to the media obsession with scaring us in order to get our attention in order to get sponsor dollars in order to feed the #oligarchy beast.
Religions and secular ideologies often make things worse. They set up a virtuous ingroup (the intelligent atheists or the godly faithful) against the threatening outgroup (those barbaric religious people or those sneaky fake-religious progressives), and they whip their communities into self-righteous, smug terror against those dangerous outsiders.
You know what I keep saying? Over and over. I keep saying:
People are afraid of all the wrong things.
I have been thinking a lot about fear this month because it is the ten year anniversary of the sudden, untimely death of my mother. She passed away unexpectedly on the day I found out I was pregnant with my second daughter. I never got the chance to tell her. The past ten years without her have been full of great blessings, and overwhelming, agonizing grief.
For a multiple-trauma survivor like myself, it can backfire to “focus on gratitude!” the way the New Age positivity cult shame-pressures us to do. Gratitude feels so much like terror. The moment my mind formulates a feeling of thankfulness for something precious in my life — my kind husband, healthy children, stable home— is the very moment I am filled with dread lest it all be ripped suddenly away, as has happened so often in my life. Mindfulness meditation techniques, yoga, chiropractics, and non-trauma specific therapy strategies exacerbate this terror.
So I wonder sometimes – what if the root of all our fears is a need for The Mother? What if the thing we all truly need most, is the ability to be infants in the arms (or the womb) of a completely safe, infinitely loving, infinitely accepting and affirming, totally nurturing Love? What if all of our violent behaviors – and the fears that prompt them – are actually the frantic wails of the starving, terrified newborn inside us? How would our culture look, if we approached all violence as infantile terror, and prioritized communal and individual healing, nurture, and compassion?
My younger daughter taught me this lesson better than any scholar could. When she turned 4, her life was upended by numerous simultaneous huge changes. She responded by becoming explosively rageful on a daily basis. After all the advice of family, friends, and books had failed, I turned to my instincts: She was terrified. She needed comfort. I flooded her with calm, loving affirmation. “I love you so much. You are so wonderful. I am here for you.” It worked. It is the only thing that has ever worked. She calmed down and gradually became her old self again… peaceful and free.
So I started doing it to myself, whenever I felt myself flailing, reacting with defensiveness, anger, rage, irrational hurt, the urge to say something cutting: “I love you so much. You are so wonderful. I am here for you.” It worked. It still works. I need it pretty often. And… I think you do, too. I think we all do.
And when those words are hard to find,, to wild , can remind us who we are.
I believe we can learn to be Mother – to ourselves, to each other, and to our hurting planet. I believe we deserve that birthing, nourishing, safeguarding, healing Love. We can give our fears and griefs to that Love, and we can find our true selves again… peaceful and free.
Trelawney Grenfell-Muir teaches courses about Sex, Dating, Marriage, and Work in the Religion and Theological Studies Department at Merrimack College and about Cross Cultural Conflict in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A Senior Discussant at the Religion and the Practices of Peace Initiative at Harvard University, she holds an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology with a concentration in Religion and Conflict, and a Ph.D. in Conflict Studies and Religion with the University Professors Program at Boston University. She currently writes articles, book chapters, and liturgical resources about feminist, nature-based Christianity.