Passage One: Mash-up between Life of Pi and Kierkegaard

In 2003, I was using a passage from Yann Martel’s book Life of Pi to discuss something very near and dear to my heart: naming a thing to give it form. Specifically, I was reading from Chapter 56 to a workshop group that was examining resistance in creative expression. The chapter is just over a page long, under five hundred words, and yet for me, it is the heart of the book. Indeed, it is positioned just left of the middle of the novel, beating with such magnetism that each reader must feel the urge to transfer its truth into his/her own life to mull over. 

The chapter highlights life’s only true opponent: fear.

“The matter is difficult to put into words. For fear, real fear, such as shakes you to your foundation, such as you feel when you are brought face to face with your mortal end, nestles in your memory like a gangrene; it seeks to rot everything, even the words with which you speak of it. So you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”

—Life of Pi, p.162

There is a power in naming something and giving it form in order to break it down. Unnamed and nebulous are an unseemly crew that can haunt anyone’s psyche and wreak havoc on the nervous system. The nervous system is our communication system, couriering every bit of sensory and biochemical information to and fro, up and down, in and out. Imagine an earnest communication system trying to pass along information that is intensely felt but not identified. It can quickly become a child’s game of telephone,with each synapse passing along your imagination’s best guess to its neighbor.

“It’s scary!” 

“It’s nauseating!” 

“It’s cold!” 

“But, what is it?” asks the dispatcher on the other end of an emergency call. “Am I sending out an ambulance, a fire truck, or a police officer?”

To some, it might seem like flirting with fire to name what you fear. Naming Voldemort was as divisive a line in the Harry Potter series as was distinguishing between a muggle and magical person. But most radical shifts in society come from an airing and a witnessing. The recent #MeToo movement demonstrates the cathartic nature of calling out and naming what had once been unmentionable. It shifts the power to the one with the courage to speak. Facing your fear does not need a collective voice to be transformational, however. Each individual creates movement by his/her own efforts. What may hold me frozen and voiceless may not be the same for you. And thus, each person gets to be the hero/heroine in life.

Caution: hold lightly labels

Create is defined in the dictionary as “call into being.” Pretty powerful stuff. Charms, oaths, enchantments, allegiances, vows, all use language to conjure or create, as do curses and prayers. Language is powerful when projected with either malice or with grace. 

It is an equal opportunity medium. 

It may seem odd that after raising praise for naming your fears, I want to highlight philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s cautionary quote: 

“If you name me,

you negate me.

By giving me a name, a label,

you negate all the other things

I could possibly be.”

This reminds me of my friend Max’s definition of terrorism: Someone telling you who you are. When society tells you who you should be—rather than you feeling the freedom to express who you know yourself to be—it sets up a sense of alienation. Labels can harm just as easily as help; and this is why each person needs to monitor their own biases and prejudices. 

The Life of Pi passage stresses that one must “fight hard to shine the light of words upon” fear, but what I have experienced in my own life is once the fear is defined and offered some form, it changes. Kierkegaard’s cautionary advice takes hold, and what was once a fear now simply looks to be my teacher. Benevolent and kind.

Journal prompt: Can you recall a time that you transformed a fear?