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(Originally published September 11, 2012)
It is a cliché but also a truism that everybody remembers where they were when it happened, or at least when they found out about it. Eleven years on, it is worth reflecting on this memory. I refer not to the need to pay tribute to the dead (also a worthy and, in my opinion, necessary activity) but to notice how an event that, for so many years, has seemed current has now passed into history. This does not diminish it as a climatic and game-changing event for the entire civilised (and uncivilised) world.
I recall that the day after the event, by strange and auspicious coincidence, I was to have my first class of ‘American History’ for my high school History course. We walked in and sat in silence, the air still abuzz with a surreal electricity from the events of the day before. Our teacher walked around the classroom with a handful of photocopies of the infamous image of the burning towers now seared on the brain of almost every human being, gave us each a copy, walked to the front of the class and simply said: “This is history”.
At the time it didn’t feel like history. I had studied history and there was something intangible about it, distant and arcane. This was the very essence of ‘NOW’, the rubble still smouldered, mobile phones still screeched desperately from under the rubble, fanatics ululated joyously around burning American flags and everywhere ordinary citizens fearfully contemplated ‘what’s next?’. We were at the threshold of a savage new millennium.
The foul architect of that atrocity lies dead at the bottom of the ocean, but the consequences of that day still ripple through global society and politics. Hatred towards Western secular society still ferments among fundamentalists, and the need to stand up to that hatred is still manipulated for political gain in the West. Britain and America are still dug into a seemingly intractable conflict in Afghanistan and much of the Middle East remains unstable. But the ‘now’ has extended into a kind of historical perpetuity. We are paying a price to history, a debt we did not ask for but incurred nonetheless.
One of the things I have had to accept about myself as I have grown older is that I am a worrier. I have never been and probably never will be one of those people who take a lazily stoic attitude to life, confronting every problem with a shrug of the shoulders and another swig of beer.
But accepting this aspect of my personality has the benefit of giving me some insight into what it is to worry. To worry is to project oneself forward and imagine the potential negative outcomes of a situation, fixating on hypothetical outcomes, rather than focusing on the situation as it is now. One of the best ways to cope with this tendency is to develop the ability to laugh at oneself. This provides a natural check against overly obsessive thinking and facilitates the self-awareness to know when your thinking is getting just plain silly, and then to laugh at it rather than perpetuating obsessive thinking.
What can also help is to reflect on what fear is. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reflection that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” has been so criminally over-quoted that for a long time I didn’t give it much thought. But when you unpack it, you can start to appreciate its wisdom. Think of the last time you had an intimidating event approaching: a high pressure job interview, an exam, a medical procedure or anything of that nature. One thing to notice is that often the period of fear preceding the event is much more unpleasant than the event itself. “Fear itself” does not have any actual content independent of the event that it is anticipating – it is essentially the creation of additional unnecessary unpleasantness.
It is in this way that fear becomes crippling and self-perpetuating. A number of years ago I struggled with anxiety and panic attacks. Once you experience your first panic attack, it is not necessarily what triggered the first attack that you dread but the sensation of panic. Thereafter, it is the anticipation of having another panic attack which becomes the trigger. Having spoken to others who have experienced the same or similar problems, I now know that this is a very common phenomenon.
Fear, as an emotion, is often nothing more than a conduit for more fear. It is virulent. It multiplies and divides, eventually overwhelming your psyche if it is allowed to. Unfortunately, fear has survival value in evolutionary terms and is thus ineradicable in us.
But it can be conquered. The opposite of fear is acceptance, even to the extent of accepting that you are afraid and that it’s okay to be.
If you feel afraid, it is worth asking yourself, what are you really afraid of?
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“They say that her limbs became rooted fast in the ground; and a livid paleness turned part of her colour into that of a bloodless plant. There is a redness in some part; and a flower, very like a violet, conceals her face. Though she is held fast by a root, she turns towards the Sun, and though changed, she still retains her passion.”
The metamorphosis of the nymph Clytie, who was in love with the Sun, into a sunflower. (Ovid; Metamorphoses 8AD)
In Japan it is known as Hanakotoba (花言葉), “the language of flowers”. In Victorian England the study of floriography reached its cultural peak.
When it comes to matters of the heart, we commonly assume that flowers are more articulate than we are. A bouquet of roses or a single carnation are perfectly formed symbols of our desire. Quiet codes that we proffer in the hopes that they communicate a sincere feeling.
Left: Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (John Singer Sargent 1885-6) Right: “Rose”; Source: Creative Commons, Flickr
In ancient Greek mythology, some flowers had their own creation myth; as in the excerpt from Ovid's Metamorphoses above, such was often borne out of human drama, of love and rejection. According to the Greek myth, the flower Narcissus Jonquila was created after the handsome mortal Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Unable to touch and hold the image he was so besotted by, he died heartbroken by the waterside and his body was transformed into a white flower with a yellow centre.
It is the expressive aesthetic qualities of flowers that lead us to anthropomorphise them in this way, using them as emotional prosthetics. After all, what can convey passion more powerfully than the deep scarlet of a rose?
Its simple evocative beauty contains all the subtlety of a love poem.
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