Don’t look at me all bug-eyed, as though you disbelieve! The Boogeyman has been around a long time, and everybody knows it, even adults. Kids, especially little kids, can tell you all about him — what he looks like, where he lurks and lies in wait, what he does when he gets you. Adults can’t, though — or won’t. We’re too sophisticated to believe in childish stories. A boogeyman? Nah! But you can research the topic on the Internet if you want; there’s been a movie or two about him, and surely hundreds of stories over the generations by the likes of Stephen King and a host of others. The Grimm Brothers’ Children’s and Household Tales were often about this grim character of folklore, in one form and name or another. Not only has he survived, but he has thrived at the unwitting hand of humankind’s nurture. Like you (I’ll bet) and millions of others, I remember being afraid to enter a dark room, get out of bed at night, or go outside in the dark because “the Boogeyman” might get me. That was common knowledge. All my school friends could, wide-eyed and gulping, confirm his existence based on independent experience, even if not an eyewitness report.
As I was growing up and battling the fear of such a specter, I was sure that he had many forms, that he was an omnipresent, evanescent creature with chameleon powers so that he avoided detection by his victims until it was too late and he had you. He clearly had “the upper hand” — ALL the hands! Enough to snare you, stifle your cries for help, smother you near to death, and use you for his nefarious purposes, purposes never apprehended by his young prey. To be sure, we didn’t think then in fifty-cent words like “omnipresent” or “evanescent” or even “chameleon.” But the unmitigated truth of the Boogeyman’s existence was without doubt.
Then Yann Martel came along and spoke in the profoundly simple-yet-vivid voice of a young, bewildered, shipwrecked Indian boy, Piscine Molitor Patel (“Pi”), to address — no, to call out! — the Boogeyman. It’s an ancient story reborn. But the Boogeyman doesn’t really exist! Or does he?
Here’s how Pi puts it:
I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease. It begins in your mind, always. One moment you are feeling calm, self-possessed, happy. Then fear, disguised in the garb of mild-mannered doubt, slips into your mind like a spy. Doubt meets disbelief and disbelief tries to push it out. But disbelief is a poorly armed foot soldier. Doubt does away with it with little trouble. You become anxious. Reason comes to do battle for you. You are reassured. Reason is fully equipped with the latest weapons technology. But, to your amazement, despite superior tactics and a number of undeniable victories, reason is laid low. You feel yourself weakening, wavering. Your anxiety becomes dread.
Fear next turns fully to your body, which is already aware that something terribly wrong is going on. Already your lungs have flown away like a bird and your guts have slithered away like a snake. Now your tongue drops dead like an opossum, while your jaw begins to gallop on the spot. Your ears go deaf. Your muscles begin to shiver as if they had malaria and your knees to shake as though they were dancing. Your heart strains too hard, while your sphincter relaxes too much. And so with the rest of your body. Every part of you, in the manner most suited to it, falls apart. Only your eyes work well. They always pay proper attention to fear.
Quickly you make rash decisions. You dismiss your last allies: hope and trust. There, you’ve defeated yourself. Fear, which is but an impression, has triumphed over you.
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 to 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.
~ Y. Martel, Life of Pi, Harcourt, Inc., 2001, p. 161-62 (underlining and bold emphasis added).
I believe Pi — or Martel — nailed it, spot-on. Does his description sound familiar to you? And have not many sages, masters, prophets, teachers and divines down through the ages left a wealth of recorded wisdom on this very topic, spoken in other words and many languages? Where else might we find that wisdom, those thoughts and principles verified so eloquently by the poor, shipwrecked Pi as he faced his Bengal tiger?
Carpe diem. Vita brevis.
© April 30, 2011, by Michael E. Stubblefield. All rights reserved.