Eyes In The Darkness

A picture of darkness. Who knows what might be in there!!?

My 5 year old son is going through a bit of a phase right now where he is scared of being almost anywhere in the house by himself.  Even in the day time.  He wants someone to walk with him to the bathroom, his bedroom, the basement, etc.  He says he’s scared that their might be monsters, while at the same time freely admits that he knows monsters aren’t real.  But how does he know such things, other than the fact that his parents have told him so?  My wife was able to prod the reason for his current phase out of him.  He says that he thought he saw something like a monster in the dark once and since that time is when he’s started being scared going from room to room.  So here there is a clash between something he “knows” because it is has been told to him by authority in his life and something that he has experienced.  Now obviously he is misinterpreting his experience and there aren’t monsters.  There is no way he can be reasoned with through conversation.  It will simply dawn to him at some point after enough time has passed and no monsters have appeared that he might have been just imagining it.  And in between he may see other disturbing shapes in the darkness that might worry him further.  This will take time.

As a parent it is easy to be a bit frustrated with this, especially since it is enough work watching the 15 month old, and to now have to escort a 5 year old everywhere in the house, even when it is bright and sunny is a bit annoying.  But then I remembered back to how I was no different as a child.  One of my first memories, although more like an emotional imprint, is that I remember being scared of the moon.  Apparently this happened around the age of two.  I remember that the moon would sometimes be visible outside my window, and I remember being scared of it.  I don’t remember when I got over that fear, but my dad says they had to move the bed so that I couldn’t see out the window from bed.  Then everything was fine.  Of course now I think the moon is full of romance and beauty and I can think of no logical reason why I would fear the moon.  It

daffy
The menacing Daffy Duck,

was clearly an irrational fear.  When I was older, maybe around 7 I also remember being scared of a stuffed Daffy Duck.  It sat next to my bed and like Daffy should it had big eyes with a fair amount of white.  That white almost glowed in the dark, and so when I would see the Daffy Duck sitting upright near my bed it started to freak me out.  In fact I have recollections of it just appearing to me that way rather suddenly, and not having frightened me prior to that.  Maybe I had some experience that made me worried about eyes in the dark.  I don’t know.  Needless to say I had to hide the Daffy Duck and then everything was fine.

All this made me think about fear.  My friend Esme had a post where she asked her readers to come up with an analogy for fear and mine was “Fear is like water.  We need a little to live, but too much and we drown.”  I think this is a pretty good analogy.  But even if some fear is good, there are rational and irrational fears.  The fact that we would fear things irrationally makes no difference to evolution.  We need to be creatures that feel fear, because there are actually things to fear in this world.  And what we fear can’t be so hardwired into us, because then how would we be able to adapt to new threats and dangers?  So we are just going to feel fear for all sorts of things, whether it is a poisonous snake, or the imagined menace of the eyes of a stuffed duck in the dark.

It seems to me that one of the purposes of our ability to reason (maybe the most important part) is that we can try to sort out the rational from the irrational fears.  And then at a higher level of reasoning we can then try to prioritize those fears to help us make better choices about where we expend our energy to try to mitigate those things which pose the greatest threat.  Anybody who is paying attention in this world knows that we are terrible at both of these things.  One reason we might be terrible at this is that in general, nature really only cares that we live long enough to reproduce.  As social species even if we died shortly after reproduction there would still be people in our community that could potentially raise those young.  So we need to feel fear, and we need to feel it strongly to get us to the point of sexual maturity, but beyond that fear loses its utility.  It seems to me that for most of us we live in a world where making it to the age of sexual maturity isn’t so difficult anymore, but our brains are still going to be wired to feel fear.  And this fear can, and is exploited intentionally, or unintentionally every day.

fear_seneca

But even if we do make a correct decision about something we should rationally fear, if there is nothing we can do about it, how do we as humans deal with such fear?  The example that often comes to mind for me is how humans at the dawn of civilization, after we discovered farming and lived in close proximity to each other and animal feces, is death to diseases we did not have immunities to.  Somewhere around 80% of the aboriginals in North America died of such diseases when the Europeans came.  Things like small pox and influenza.  Of course you can still be killed by such things today, but most of us don’t because we’ve had so many generations of living with these things our bodies have built up an immunity.  Imagine living in those early days of farming and seeing people die in the prime of their lives from the flu.  Not just one person who was already a bit unhealthy but many people.  This would be a reasonable thing to fear.  But T-cell backgroundwhat could one do about it?  The microscope was not invented until 1590.  It’s not that humans didn’t try to combat this reasonable fear, but in the absence of being able to know what germs, viruses, and infections were at that microscopic level, truly doing something about that fear would have been hard to do.  The boon that farming brought would have easily given us a blind spot as to what might be the source of problems.  When I really read the entirety of the Leviticus in the Bible it was clear to me that this was how we went about combating reasonable fears.  Practical advice (for the time) mixed with storytelling.  Science is really also about building a narrative for why things happen the way they do, and how to go about solving those problems.  I do think narratives, and stories, are important for contextualizing fears.  So we can say “Alright well here is a thing that I fear, and here is why it happens, and now I can start taking steps to avoid these things.”  The problem being that when you have the wrong explanation, you can expend a great deal of energy and not really solve the problem, even if you do conquer your fear.  To the local follower of some divine word, it must have been a great surprise to the one who believed and did as they were told that disease still ended their lives.  Leaving those alive to suspect that the only reason the person died couldn’t be because they had an incorrect narrative for the fear, but that the person who died wasn’t following the narrative correctly or worse yet rejected the narrative secretly.

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Note the “Think! Try Again”

One of the things that I like about the scientific method is that built-in is a self-correction mechanism so that we can constantly question the narrative.  Certainly there have been scientists who have stuck to a particular paradigm, or who let ego override their humility, but I think people who don’t really understand science, underestimate how much self-correction is built in to the methodology.  Maybe that’s also why the biggest religious zealots have a hard time seeing science as fundamentally different from religion.  We see the narrative science builds change;  openly and unabashedly.  Yet books remain unchanged.  Of course, this isn’t strictly true, because narratives evolve, translators change things, and some beliefs fall away from various denominations, but the story that religion often tells is that it is unchanging and forever.  Such is the nature of institutions.

Maybe fear can become addictive in the brain as well.  Maybe this is why it feels like so many people are drowning in it today.  I think that’s what makes me the saddest about religious fundamentalists or conspiracy theorists, because for all their narratives they just seem really afraid and all I can think is “Things aren’t really as fearful as you think.”  This is also what angers me about fear mongering.  It really might be the worst human behavior.

13 thoughts on “Eyes In The Darkness

  1. Suggestion: give him his very own flashlight. He can wear it on a strap around his wrist, or on a lanyard around his neck. It might give him the feeling he’s in control of that dark, and relax a bit.

    Dark is scary. I lived in the country (no lights, no car lights, no street lights) until I was about 9 and then we moved to the city. I slept like a log through sirens, trucks, a monstrous COCA COLA sign that flashed on, off, all night long. When we moved back here, I spent some quallity time in a dark room, no lights, no noises except the wind moving tree branches. Terrifying. Then my mother started leaving the light on in the bathroom all night, and over time I grew past it.

    I think dark and the idea of Things That Are Out There is a very primitive thing, since we were not as strong or as fast as most things out there, and darkness, true darkness, could kill us. Our ancestors kept fires lit all night long. So I think that fear hits closest to children, who are closer in their emotions to primitive man–

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    1. Indeed. I think we can all be scared of the darkness at times. And the flashlight would be a good idea, except he’s also scared in the day as well. Only the incident where he thought he saw a monster happened in the dark. But his fear has extended to all hours of the day. In fact between writing this and posting, I found out he had a dream about monsters and today he doesn’t even want to be on the bathroom by himself. Oddly he was okay being in the bathroom of the outdoor pool we go to, because somehow that bathroom he considers outdoors.

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      1. Sherri Purves

        Give him a special charm to wear around his neck that wards off monsters.

        Give him a special power that can banish all monsters.

        Ask him where he thinks the monsters are coming into the house, as well as where they hide. Use salt at every monster entrance and hide out in the house. Everybody knows that monsters are allergic to salt!

        Have him concoct his own monster repellent. All you need is an empty spray bottle, 3 cups filled with water, and yellow, blue and red food colouring. Have him mix the food colouring together. Make sure it’s really watered down to prevent possible staining on areas around the house. Have him make a monster repellant label to put on the spray bottle.

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        1. Thanks Auntie Sherri. I’ve suggested such things, but he doesn’t seem convinced. I’m probably rather a bad salesman as well. He seems to just seems to feel that only another person can be protection. We did have an interesting development this morning where he was able to vocalize what is frightening him more. He is afraid of things that are hanging. Clothes, bags, in some cases even some pictures on the wall. He thinks they will come to life. He also said the source was some anime film Maggie had him watch that scared him. Considering he just went into the bathroom without me in it, perhaps his ability to put it into words has helped him be a bit more brave. We’ll see!

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  2. Spot on! Things that go bump in the night … in our imagination seem real. There is a good reason for that evolutionarily, but that doesn’t mean we should be wedded to the concept (as through a religion) for ever and ever, amen!

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  3. Maybe fear can become addictive in the brain as well.

    I’m thinking about people who self-harm. To them, as the song goes, “pleasure and pain, starting to feel the same.”

    About fear, it is a powerful tool. One of the first people to really study the caves of Lascaux and Altamira, Palaeontologist John Pfeiffer, believed the principle purpose of the art was to imprint the clan’s cultural dependence on certain beasts through extreme disorientation and the resulting fear. His thesis contended that children for their initiation to adulthood would be mildly drugged (although he concedes this might not have been necessary), led into the caves, pitch black, rhythmic drumming and chants working them into a trance-like state, and then at a pre-planned moment (perhaps following hours of being immersed in total blackness) torches lit and placed at strategic locations around the cave gallery walls. The figures (drawn on the natural rock face) would have come alive, and with the flickering flames given the appearance of running. The fear, he argued, burnt the message into the kids brains.

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    1. It’s interesting. Kids also like to be scared at a certain age, and even feeling some fear on a roller coaster or other ride can be a thrill for many of us. A documentary I watched hypothesized that the reason we have nightmares is to basically practice feeling fear, so that when we face real fear in the world we aren’t overwhelmed by emotion. This could be related to the ritual you describe here. Maybe having imagined fears as a child is part of preparing for adulthood and we shouldn’t be trying to look for some magic cure to dispel it. It seems fearful moments as a child also stick in the memory fairly strongly and that too may be a healthy thing. Maybe we have to feel comfortable with fear to a certain extent so we don’t crumple into a full on panic.

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  4. If you think about it, childhood fears are the most primal instinctive ones. They’re exactly what an animal living in the wild should fear, dark places, the unknown and unseen, and monsters (predators) lurking about.

    Our reasoning systems can override them, but those are the ones not well developed yet in children. In the meantime, the lower level reflexive and habitual systems have to learn by classical conditioning, i.e., repetition.

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    1. It does make a lot of sense. Thank you for putting it in perspective. I guess it also makes me wonder though, how much of an authority figure they see their parents, or maybe how they view authority. It is not enough for me to say that there is nothing there and that they are safe. Maybe with enough repetition and assurance over time it will have an impact, but there is certainly little I can say right now to quell the fears. My tactic has been to try and talk about it in hopes that if my son can really try to understand what he’s afraid of and when and why it might be helpful.

      I wonder also why some adults seem more prone to being exploited through fear than others. Is it because their parents threatened them more, is it religious indoctrination, is it by not even trying to dispel the fears, but rather playing into the narrative by pretending that there is a magic amulet that can protect them? It’s interesting.

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      1. Sorry, I can’t give any advice for him in particular. Time, repetition, and discussion sound like the right approach to me. Based on something I noticed with my friend’s kids, I will suggest being careful not to bring it up until or unless he does or acts scared. Strangely enough, a lot of these kinds of things seem habitual, which sounds strange to say with a fear, and he may slip out of it if he’s distracted.

        On adults, I’m not sure. It seems like there may be a genetic component to it, so of course a fearful parent will tend to have fearful kids. But fearful uncertain lives also predispose people toward things like religion. There’s a reason why religion is strongest in sub-Saharan Africa and South America, and weakest in Scandinavia.

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  5. Well, so, you kind of delve into the genesis of fear, itself. I tend to want to remain with monsters and what we filter out in the way of vision, early on. In my experience, darkness is a blank slate into which we may both read/see what is not normally visible to the naked eye, but it is also a slate onto which we might project the spectres of repressed emotions. Our own fears assuming form. Which is what most people seem to focus on in such situations. And yet it renders the former no less formidable.

    There is also the metaphoric darkness or shadow self, as Jung would name it. I have long taken comfort in darkness, lived where it existed. Still do. It’s the sleight of hand bullshit that goes on in the light of day that truly seems fright-worthy. Anyhow, hope your son discovers his own peace with the night. Aloha.

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    1. I too am fond of the darkness. There is much beauty to be found when the light is low. And since it doesn’t photograph particular well…it’s just for me. 🙂 And yes the silence that comes in darkness is also very peaceful. I too hope that he finds peace in the darkness. I am sure he will…he’s only 5. It’s hard to connect with this fear in the sense that while I remember being afraid it’s not like trauma or anything. Remembering the emotion and still feeling it when you think of the memory are two different things. But I’m really trying to let him know that it’s okay to be afraid. I’m trying to validate the emotion while also trying to make sure he knows that there is nothing real to fear. When you talk to him, he seems to know that. He seems to know that there are no monsters or ghosts, but he also just can’t help being afraid. So as Self Aware Patterns said further up, I think this is just part of having a young brain and that it will simply fade away.

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      1. Well, there Are what might be termed monsters and there Are ghosts. Some of us are attuned to that subtle vision while most are not. And many children, before it is conditioned out of them, see these spectres quite clearly. I guess that is up to every parent to decide what to do about that. All the best, Swarn. 🌸

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