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October 25, 2001
Talk about it E-mail story Print

Getting a Grip Is All We Can Do
  Times Headlines
By NORAH VINCENT, Norah Vincent, a freelance journalist, lives in New York City

We've all been having bad dreams lately; waking to the sound of the phone ringing or the clock bleeping, succumbing to the false, momentary relief of feeling safe, then starting our days possessed by that lingering malaise of a nightmare. The pictures are faint, but the fear remains. We are conquered by it.

What to do.

Loathe the enemy for infiltrating and the government for impotence? Rush the pharmacy, then hoard and complain? Lash out stupidly at turbans? Seal our borders (as if we could)? March for peace? Burn a flag? Buy stocks? Go shopping? Wear the red white and blue badge of courage like a talisman? Blame the press for scaring us? OK. This will scare you more. Anthrax is tiddlywinks. Even smallpox can be dealt with, compared with what may be coming. We have a vaccine for smallpox. But nuclear war? Now there's the unconscionable threat. And the one we can least combat. The one that more than a few of us have been tossing over in our sleep.

No doubt, scores of us have dreamed recently about a thermonuclear explosion happening near where we live. How could we not? The news crackles with speculation about whether the U.S. should or would use the "ultimate weapon" and whether Osama bin Laden has it. There seems to be no question that he'll use it if he does.

The sheer audacity of the Sept. 11 attacks has said as much. Clearly, we are dealing with plotters who have crossed propriety's Rubicon and accepted the fatal consequences of doing so. Nobody attacks the Pentagon if he isn't prepared for--inciting--final conflict. And it is this, above all, that makes the current nuclear threat more real and imminent than anything we experienced during the Cold War.

Back then, we had deterrents. Not any more. In order for deterrents to deter, the other guy has to want to live as much as you do. He's got to have something to lose. But to these ad hoc zealots, death is a godly reward. Al Qaeda has nothing to lose. We do. Game over.

That is why we exist now in the throes of a helpless and seemingly interminable wait for the flash and the shock wave. The anticipation is the nightmare. Not knowing is the worst. But despite what the Bush posse boasts, we can do nothing to forestall this "thing" that may well be coming for us, nothing but sit paralyzed, bracing for that unstoppable force, huge and powerful beyond imagining, to crush us or burn us or sweep us away, flimsy as seed pods.

That's when we wake up. But that's also when recovery begins. Because this is the bottom of fear, and nightmares take us to the bottom of our fear. This is no accident or, if it is, it's a happy and adaptive one. It can get us through the tough stuff, if we let it work. We can use our nightmares. Plumb our fears, then discard them. Cleanse our subconscious and carry on. After all, if Jung was right, that's what dreaming is for.

None of this is easy, except in the recommending. But passive and platitudinous as this may sound, there is bravery in simply enduring and great serenity, as the prayer asserts, in accepting the things we cannot change.

This much surely is true. Fearing something that is beyond your control is as futile and self-indulgent as feeling guilty about something you've already done.

We need to get over it. It's our best course, not to mention our duty. Besides, our fears are just about the only thing we can control. With resolve and a bit of old-fashioned denial, they can be transcended.

For information about reprinting this article, go to http://www.lats.com/rights/register.htm

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