The Non-Newtonian Physics of Fear

The saliva of a frog adopts different properties depending upon the job at hand — dense and sticky for snagging a bug, thin and solvent for digesting a bug. It is the same way that immobilized ketchup can be made to flow by tapping the neck of the bottle (if you’re pounding the base of the bottle, you’re wasting your energy and are to be pitied) — the fluid of the ketchup remains the same, but its flow dynamics are remade. There’s a lot of science-y blahblah about shear rates that makes this so, but if you’re into that, then you can track it down on your own — suffice to say that we know what ketchup is and does.

Frog spit and ketchup are examples of what are called non-Newtonian fluids, meaning they have mutable properties depending upon the agents and forces with which they are interacting. Oobleck, which is a mixture of cornstarch and water, is maybe the freakiest of the bunch — it’s a solid and a liquid.

The American fear response is consonant with the notion of non-Newtonian fluids — same substance, different properties depending upon who and where you are. Fear is obviously a needful adaptation — as naked apes, it helped us dodge the onrushing tusks of the boar, or seek the solace of the cave in a lightning storm. When our ambitions extended only to drawing our next breath, to seeing the next sunrise, I’d wager our fear response was more or less identical.

Now, obviously, we each face a world of such complexity that our vestigial primate brains are always like a heartbeat away from erupting in a fireball at the top of our spines. So not only do we face convolution and chaos, as a species we have disbanded and scattered into tribes, striated into our many alliances and rivalries.

So, though the substance is the same, its characteristics are variable — you may fear a brown-skinned person from overseas will seize your job at the assembly plant, I fear a country whose highest aspiration is clocking in at an assembly plant; you may fear a government that will confiscate your guns, I fear getting shot; you may fear for what you take to be the soul of what you call an unborn child, I fear the tyranny of rights bestowed upon a non-sentient cluster of cells that eclipses those of the woman carrying them; you may fear oppressive oversight of industry; I fear purveyors of poison — on and on, same substance, different states.

Our differences are many, but they matter so slightly.

Why not let our anxieties coalesce, as we bob next to one another in this pond of our fears. Sometimes these waters are scalding hot, sometimes shocking cold; sometimes they are brackish and still, sometimes swift and surging. It is a difference of condition, not of essence. We are each of us afloat in our own little tide pool of fear — we take it to be the sea, but it is little better than a deepish puddle. And the sea is the sea, and we can only know our piece of it.

Let us crawl back on land, sloshing forth in the glistening cocoon of our fears, and huddle together.

We’re all we’ve got. And so are right to be terror-stricken.

Let us reclaim our birthright, let us lay hands upon our shared past as the shuddering monkeys we all are — you are afraid that the embers of the fire that sustains us will gutter and die, and I am afraid of the same thing, it’s just that the form of our fears differs a bit. In contour and rhythm, in bouquet and in savor — and because you are afraid in your way, and I in mine, we wish to banish each other from the cave that provides us the illusion of safety from the terrors that surround us.

But this cave is all we have. And this fire needs tending. And we monkeys are all so afraid and incapable. This cave is after all an experiment — our forebears came down from the trees to give it a go here. This fire is dwindling, and without it, the shadows will overtake us.

Sometimes our fear is a sludge, sometimes it is bracing and clear. But always it is there. Yours is yours and mine is mine, but it’s all more the same than it is different — we are each of us hobbled, we are each of us compromised. Let’s live as one. In this cold cave. Desperate, together.

You can find longer essays, satire, fiction, and info on the workshops I teach in Chicago on my site: ianbelknap.com — also, check out the WRITE CLUB podcast

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