Lapham’s Quarterly – Fear

I don’t believe ‘enjoyed’ is the right adjective to describe how I felt reading Lapham’s Quarterly – Fear.  What is the right word if you continually want to do something yet it causes anxiety and fear while you do it?

It is not that reading this edition made me afraid; it is that it called attention to the abundant anxiety in my own life which was exacerbated in reading about the anxiety and fear of others in this edition.

I often mention briefly the anxiety in my own life in this blog.  However, I am also quick to point out that it is most likely due to my work as an Account Manager such as in this post from January 2016.


Link: https://www.mcurtin.com/2016/01/journal-entry-january-5th-2016/

Excerpt:

Confidence is also what helps shake off this persistent anxiety on my shoulders that lasted for most of 2015.  I handle very large accounts and I have to ensure we never lose them.  In four years at this position I’ve never lost an account and am the only one, perhaps in the entire 64 person national team – that can say so.  When I think about anxiety I’m reminded of a movie by Ben Affleck called “The Company Men” where Ben is an Account Manager and says a line that stuck with me when he was working as a carpenter remembering what it was like at the corporation:

At my old job I was
scared all the time…
Quarterly cost reports,
young guys coming up.
Losing an account, or
who’s getting ahead of me

This quote is very true regarding the life of an Account Manager.  You’re only as good as your last sale and god forbid if you lose any account.  There is always one more report with your numbers where you’re ranked.  Any report in the past where you’ve done well is forgotten the next day and your job is never safe depending on those numbers.

End excerpt


In examining my own anxiety, I realized it more than just my job; it is a mosaic of existential factors as well as internal fears.  Here they are:

  • Work – As mentioned above this gets top slot.  I have a responsibility to my family and any failure in work would result in swift consequences for our wellbeing.  I have a portfolio of customers and losing any one of them results in real and immediate affects to my paycheck.  This anxiety is persistent and success does not alleviate the amount of anxiety since the marketplace is constantly changing.
  • Climate change – I put my faith into scientists and can very clearly see that the planet is warming and will have humongous consequences, especially for my children.  Climate change will cause large changes that we can only guess at now but I imagine will involve mass migration, wars over resources (lost ie. water and found ie. Arctic drilling).  I also now have accustomed myself to checking the air quality – something I used to take for granted – and am shocked to learn that it is usually ‘moderate’ here in Pacifica.  I had thought we had very lean air due to our proximity to the ocean but it appears not so.
  • Politics – With the election of Trump it seems progress has not only halted but that we’re going backwards.  America is no longer to be admired, we’re losing allies, science is trying to be muzzled, and it seems a very large part of American citizens – those who elected Trump – are complete nincompoops.  I don’t think it is realized just yet how damaging this all is; but the more I read the more I realize how many mistakes have been made through the decades and that we’re really just bumbling through it all.  But to top this all off, we now have the threat of nuclear war and a President, who no intelligent person would put their faith in, capable of actually making it happen.

The first item, work, is something that I can control and can put the anxiety away in a box fortified by confidence.  It resurfaces from time to time but is nothing I cannot handle, especially when I get my exercise and the dopamines are flowing.

The second two are existential problems that actually do threaten our very existence.  What drives me mad about these two is that a very large block of Americans don’t seem intelligent enough to realize that these are real and have real consequences.  They shine a light on the deficit of critical thinking skills and that a good part of American culture is no more sophisticated than Monday night football and Jerry Springer.  It is very disappointing.

These existential problems are things I cannot put in a box and contain.  They are persistent, ever present and there is next to nothing that I can do about them except think about possible preparations both short term (nuclear war) and long term (climate change).  By long term understanding which geographical region would be the safest from flooding/drought/war and others.  My only defense here is to enjoy life, learn, practice mindfulness, meditate and just ‘be’ as fully as I can.

And with that, here are my favorite excerpts from Lapham’s Quarterly – Fear along with my comments.

People living deeply have no fear of death. – Anaïs Nin

My thought here is that when you ‘live deeply’ a serenity eventually overtakes you and you see tiny glimmers of the truth.

Again, it is common knowledge that the movement against the fluoridation of municipal water supplies has been catnip for cranks of all kinds, especially for those who have obsessive fear of poisoning. – Richard Hofstadter, from “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” 

I highlighted the passage above because I learned of this conspiracy while searching the deep web.  Just for entertainment I was looking for secrets, for the meaning of life, aliens, whatever.  I came across a post that mentioned fluoride as well as the pineal gland (check pineal-eye on this Wikipedia entry).  Well, I don’t believe in these things but was glad to find an actual reference to the fluoride conspiracy from a source long before the internet.

So, go in peace, my dear man, and henceforth do not judge the life of any man until you have learned more of the facts. – From The Deeds of the Romans circa 1300 England

This is a piece of advice to take to heart.  We all judge, judging in my opinion is a basic instinct for survival:  we cannot sit down for coffee and a chat with every passerby to understand whether or not they are a danger to us.  We have to make a snap decision based on experience and instinct.  But aside from that and on a deeper level, every person has a story;  they were born, they were cared for as a baby – otherwise they wouldn’t have survived – they most likely had friends as well as family; here in the USA they probably went to school, had teachers, there are those that know their story, know there is some good in them.  And now they do what they do based on their life experiences as well as mental capacities they were given.


A native of the United States clings to this world’s goods as if he were certain never to die; and he is so hasty in grasping at all within his reach that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not living long enough to enjoy them.  He clutches everything, he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications…… 

He who has set his heart exclusively on the pursuit of worldly welfare is always in a hurry, for he has but a limited time at his disposal to reach, to grasp, and to enjoy it.  – Alexis de Tocqueville, from Democracy in America. 

This is even truer today, in the year 2018, than it was in 1835.  Capitalism is the name we give to our system which is better described as unbounded consumption that is never satisfied.  The only way our system works is to continually increase:  increase production, increase consumption, sell more, buy more, the numbers must always go up.  And so this environment has created a populace that marches to its steady consumer drumbeat with only a few realizing that life is best lived with less. It is the experiences that inherently give life purpose and meaning, not some material object which you own.  This idea goes directly against a basic fiber of American culture which is always to attain more, to never be satisfied with what you have.


and in every job I’ve had since, I’ve always been afraid I was about to be fired. – Joseph Heller, from Something Happened

This is built into the job of Sales and Account Managers put there by management.  It is an integral part of the company kool-aid; sometimes barely perceptible when times are good but overpowering when times are bad.  It is part of a the American corporate contract:  I do well you pay more or there is the threat that I will leave; I do poorly and you’ll fire me.  There is no more loyalty in the old sense, no matter how many ways HR tries to spin all the employees as ‘family.’  I wish corporations would stop calling their employees ‘family’ when that is the least fitting way to describe the environment.


They have demonstrated more potently than any argument, demonstrated beyond question of a  doubt, the appalling dangers and enormous effectiveness of popular and theatrical demagoguery.

They have cast a brilliant and cruel light upon the failure of popular education……

For Mr. Orson Welles and his theater have made a greater contribution to an understanding of Hitlerism, Mussolinism, Stalinism, anti-Semitism, and all other terrorisms of our times than all the words about them that have been written by reasonable men.  – Dorothy Thompson, “Mr. Welles and Mass Delusion.”  

I’ve written before how disappointed as well as surprised and shocked I am to realize how daft many of my American countrymen are when the majority attend at least some schooling and the universities are unparalleled to any other time in human history, yet basic critical thinking skills when it comes to politics and religion seem to be nonexistent.  Trump was elected and the vast majority of Americans are religious.

The quote above on the incident that Mr. Orson Welles caused clearly show that while part of America is absolutely genius (Nasa, Google, inventors of all stripes, science, etc) the majority of the population is not and is easily persuaded whether it be in believing Martians are attacking or Trump would be a good leader of the country.


We (Calvinists) filled more or less the same place in the European imagination that Islam does now, one difference being that the Christianity now assumed to be under threat on that most secular continent is merely sociological and cultural, in effect racial, and another difference being that there was no ideal of tolerance and little concept of due process to mitigate the violence the presence of our ancestors inspired….

If someone had asked a citizen of Lyon, on his way to help exterminate the Calvinists, to explain what he and his friends were doing, he would no doubt have said that he was taking back his city, taking back his culture, taking back his country, fighting for the soul of France…..

At the core of all this fear, real or pretended.  What if these dissenters in our midst really are a threat to all we hold dear?  Better to deal with the problem before their evil schemes are irreversible, before our country has lost its soul and the United Nations has invaded Texas.  We might step back and say that there are hundreds of millions of people who love this nation’s soul, who in fact are its soul, and patriotism should begin by acknowledging this fact.  –  Marilynne Robinson, “Fear.”

Yes, but what is new?  The Calvinists and Protestant Reformation did change the character (soul?) of Europe quite a bit!  People don’t like change; they like the familiar, tradition and cling to what they’ve always done.  I think Ms. Robinson is arguing from the position that since Calvinism and Protestants are now part of the traditional character of Europe it is safe to use in defending another recent change to the character in the form of Islam.  In other words she says Calvinism didn’t turn out so bad and has become who we are so won’t it be the same with Islam?  In 100 years or so they will integrate with our beliefs and customs and part of their religion and culture will integrate with us.

Well, the problem is again, there are many who do not want this change.  Yes, it would be nice if we could time travel to the future, find a beautiful mixed woman without a headscarf speaking beautiful French, Arabic and English who has never believed in the fairy tales of religion and who tells us, see, everything works out very well!  But if we could also travel back in time then we’d meet those people who are absolutely aghast at what Europe has become.  They would point to the fact that they should have never let those natives from the colonies into their homelands!  To see England not be Catholic, the horror!!!

And so, using the fact that Protestants are mainstream now when they were persecuted before and everything turned out alright as a reason to accept Islam now just doesn’t sit well with me.

This doesn’t mean I’m against one or the other, quite the opposite!  For me, the world, its people and beliefs are constantly in flux.  I enjoy learning as much as I can about these changes:  from voices in the Middle Ages dabbling with the Cathar religion to Mormons today knocking on my door and trying to get me to convert, I realize we’re all just trying to get to the bottom of this great mystery of our existence.  For me personally, I have not experienced a revelation yet that dissuades me from believing that all religion “is a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion, extending all the way back to a fabrication of a few non-events.”


The most important role of managers is to create an environment in which people are passionately dedicated to winning in the marketplace.  Fear plays a major role in creating and maintaining such passion.  Fear of competition, fear of bankruptcy, fear of being wrong, and fear of losing can all be powerful motivators.  – Andrew Grove from Only the Paranoid Survive.

Spoke about my own anxiety in the workplace above.


it is sobering to realize that, according to reliable observers, the Russian image of the U.S. is the mirror image of the American image of the USSR today.  Each side sees itself as peace loving and honorable and the other country – or at least its leaders – as treacherous, unscrupulous, and bent on world conquest……

However, as long as mankind clings to the conviction, reinforced by millennia of experience, that the superior destructive force is still the ultimate arbiter of conflict, the specter of universal destruction can never be exorcized.  – Jerome D. Frank, from “Atomic Arms and Pre-Atomic Man.”  

Yes, the USA and USSR saw each other as the baddie but my thought has always been that the bad country is that which won’t let their people leave if they would like.  We’re free to leave the USA if we choose, those in the USSR could not.


I began to feel a terrified pity for the white children of these white people:  who had been sent, by their parents, to Korea, though their parents did not know why.  Neither did their parents know why these miserable, incontestably inferior, rice-eating gooks refused to come to heel, and would not be saved.  But I knew why.  I came from a long line of miserable, incontestably inferior, rice-eating, chicken-stealing, hog-swilling niggers – who had acquired these skills in their flight from bondage – who still refused to come to heel, and who would not be saved.  If two and two make four, then it is a very simple matter to recognize that people unable to be responsible for their own children, and who care so little about each other, are unlikely instruments for the salvation of the people who they permit themselves the luxury of despising as inferior to themselves.  Even in the case of Korea, we, the blacks at least, knew why our children were there:  they had been sent there to be used, in exactly the same way, and for the same reasons, as the blacks had been so widely dispersed out of Africa – an incalculable investment of raw material in what was not yet known as the common market.  – James Baldwin, from The Devil Finds Work.

This is perhaps one of my favorite quotations in the book.  As I lived abroad, learned languages, studied history and became more critical in my thinking I was able to form my own opinions on many global events over the past 100 years or so.  In the USA our teachers tell us that the wars in Vietnam and Korea were to “contain Communism” and leave it at that.  They taught us that Communism was all bad and we were all good and so doing anything and everything we could to stop the bad system of Communism was all the reason needed.  And from speaking with the older generation today I understand that many of them bought it, a good portion don’t know and a greater portion don’t want to talk about it.

In fact, there are not many with whom I could strike up the conversation with today about the Vietnam/Korean wars and have any meaningful or insightful conversation at all!  What makes this absolutely tragic is that so many people died and it caused so much pain;  all for reasons (or non-reasons) that the majority of people cannot articulate very much at all.

And parents would send their son’s to go die just as blindly today as they did back in the ’60s and ’70s.  Yes, there is access to information but the availability of information does not inherently confer critical thinking skills upon its readers.  And add to this the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ people today really cannot figure out which was is up and which is down outside of their narrow arena of expertise.


When you’re about to shrink with fear, instead do what the peacocks (and many mammals) do: frighten fear by enlarging your silhouette.  Blow yourself up – mentally – feel unbreakable, wear self-confidence like a rhinoceros its carapace, appear immortal.  Deadly fear will immediately run away, its scythe between its legs…..

To live in fear of what’s about to happen is for many people today – owing to our current political situation – a reality.

But to live in fear, period, is a horror, a torture.  You have forgotten fear was the culprit, and you have been obliterated, replaced by a shameful black hole, which breathes – or not – in your stead.  

This evening – outside, a murder of crows darkens the air with its flying formation, announcing the storm of the century, the end of the world – this evening, to live in fear will be my definition of death.  – Philippe Petit, In Search of Fear.


anxiety:  “Temporal prosperity comes always accompanied with so much anxiety.” – John Donne, 1623

Author: 魔手

Global Citizen! こんにちは!僕の名前はマットです. Es decir soy Mateo. Aussi, je m'appelle Mathieu. Likes: Languages, Cultures, Computers, History, being Alive! \(^.^)/