A Student’s Garden of Terrors by David M. Whalen

A Student’s Garden of Terrors

David M. Whalen on Fearing Rightly

I live in a world of fears, terrors, tremors, and even midnight screams. Any of you who have children know what I mean. G. K. Chesterton once remarked that a child’s world is naturally and properly laced with terror, and any attempt to purge a child’s world of its traces in song or story is both foolish and futile. Deprive a child of terror, and the child will invent it.

Some weeks ago, I was awakened by the sobbing scream of my daughter, calling out in the dark, half awakened by her own bad dream. This is an old drill. I staggered down the hall, calling softly, lest her cries awaken and terrify the multitude of children (all the more important as that night we had two additional children staying with us). “Kidnappers,” she sobbed.

She was having “bad thoughts”—for some reason, my children insist upon calling nightmares not nightmares but “bad thoughts”—about kidnappers coming into the house. I comforted her, gave her a drink of water, settled her down again, and returned to bed. I had fallen asleep again when the moan of terror was renewed. “Kidnappers! Kidnappers coming!” Up again, down the hall in a hurry, over to the bed, new words of comfort, assurances, suggestions of other thoughts to think. She had no need to fear, I said.

Between three and four o’clock that morning, four times did she awaken in fear. “Daddy,” she moaned the last time, “Daddy, I’m scared.” A pitiful cry, certainly, though I suspect those of you who have had similar experiences will find your pity includes more than the child alone. My pity, alas, had evaporated. No staggering quietly down the hall, but storming now.

With more passion than patience I exploded. “Angela! There are no kidnappers here! No kidnapper would dare enter this house.” I was in the grip of the muse now, speaking pure inspiration. “There are ten children here! Kidnappers are afraid of you! Do you know what would happen to a kidnapper? Do you think he would live? Do you think for a moment that any kidnapper is equal to the riot of pigmy chaos you would unleash on him?”

As I yelled at my daughter at four o’clock in the morning, she slowly began . . . to grin. She was smiling. She began to see it. Her fear was utterly misplaced. It does no good to say, “You have no reason to be afraid,” for fear belongs in the universe as much as does hydrogen. But this fear was misplaced. Fear belonged in the coward heart of the kidnapper faced with a household in which the only predictable thing is unpredictability. Heaven help the lunatic who thought he could capture a child that night! She went contentedly back to sleep, and I, thanking the muse, returned to salvage what I could of repose and the night.

Intellectual Fears

The child is the father of the man. What of the misplaced fears of the intellectual world people like me inhabit?

In the main, academics have a deadly fear of ends, so we become obsessive about means. That is, we love method, but we are frightened by both the objects and the ends that our methodologies are meant to serve. The reason for this is a profound and paradoxical fear of the very idea of knowledge itself. Having found the knowledge of so many people for so many ages to be illusory, academics tend to hide in a reductive skepticism, masquerading as sophistication.

Even those whose disciplines are blessed with material things as their objects of study all too often flee serious reflection on their own ultimate ends and the questions of their meaning and significance. For virtually all disciplines, unremitting immersion in procedures, techniques, and methods has become the objective of education itself, immune to questioning or critique, largely because this immersion can act as a readily managed distraction from the terrible questions of ultimate ends.

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