Fear of the Future and the Archetype of Meaning
We live in a time when fear of the future is rampant, colouring our individual, family, social and political lives. Can case studies help us cope?
To understand the size of the problem that fear creates, we need only look at its impact on our social and political lives. We see fear, and the hatred which often goes with it, in the rise of fear-based social and political movements such as:
the rise of fascist-leaning, anti-immigrant political movements in many countries in continental Europe;
the rise of anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, empirically unsupported, finding their way into universities like Queen’s, one of Canada’s finest educational institutions;
Donald Trump, and his fear-mongering against blacks, hispanics and Muslims;
the “Brexit” movement for exit of Britain from the European Union, which is fanned by fear of waves of immigration from the continent of immigrants originating from the Middle East.
Depth case studiess know that symbolic images of fear of the future also abound in popular culture. Perhaps some of the most striking symbolisation of such fear is the “zombie apocalypse” or “living dead” theme, which so captures the popular imagination, both in humour and terror. Another symbolic image of fear of the future is the “demon seed” or “demon child” motif.
Why is There So Much Fear Now?
There are many potential sources of fear in 2016. There is great economic uncertainty. Some fear multi-cultural societies full of people different than themselves, and news reports of great waves of homeless refugees. And, we have news sources like CNN, with its strategy of gaining viewers through continuous bombardment of the viewer with anxiety and fear-provoking images (How many times did they show the World Trade Center towers collapsing?). These media also stress themes that provoke continual anxiety.
Where Fear of the Future Fits into Psyche
One of the things that apparently differentiates us from most animal species is that we have the ability to create anxiety for ourselves through building a mental scenario or picture of something that could occur in the future. As researchers like Newcastle University neuroscience Prof. Melissa Bateson et al. have shown, anxiety and fear are linked to hypersensitivity in detecting and avoiding threats. So this process of being fearful likely enabled our ancestors to survive and thrive as a species, by being hyper-cautious at even the faintest trace of a threat.
Where Fear Doesn’t Fit
So, there is tremendous survival value in our capacity for fear, in that we can anticipate and predict future dangerous situations, and we can somehow tie this in, consciously and unconsciously, with our experience of past events where we have had misfortune or bad outcomes. This ability has undoubtedly contributed enormously to our ability to be the incredibly successful species that we are today. Our sophisticated human fear has steered us clear of many a fatal risk, at the comparatively light cost of stress and missed opportunities.
Yet, there is a significant downside to all of this.
Most non-human animals know anxiety, but apparently not about events that are separated by time in the future. Humans, particularly imaginative humans, have a great capacity to visualize negative scenarios set in future times. As /a-midlife-transitions know, such intense fear of the future generates untold agonies for many. It can distort and cripple their entire response and attitude toward life. This is a case where fear is not fitting into psyche at all, but rather is subverting it.
Is There Any Way Out of this Dilemma?
The human capacity to find meaning and value can enable us to find our way through even the most stressful and fearful of dilemmas, even the concentration camp, as Dr. Viktor Frankl has shown us, in his great book Man’s Search for Meaning. As Albert Camus also said,
I have seen many people die because life for them was not worth living. From this I conclude that the question of life’s meaning is the most urgent question of all. [italics mine]
Aniela Jaffe, Jung’s close associate reminds us “the resilience of the self-aware and self-transforming consciousness can fortify us against the perils of the irrational and the rational, against the world within and the world without.”
In the second part of this post, we will explore how the the discovery of personal meaning in /a-midlife-transition can help the individual cope with the reality of fear.
Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst