The Glass is Not ‘Half Full’

We don’t fear the dark because we don’t know what’s there. We fear it because one way or another we know exactly what’s there, and we cannot handle it. What stays with us when it goes quiet and dark — which is to say when our sense perceptions are made temporarily impotent — is simply too much.

When children are afraid of the dark they will say they are afraid of monsters that adults know to be fictitious. Adults more often than not see only two options. They may join in the fantasy, acknowledge the existence of ghosts or boogiemen by checking under the bed and in the closet, and then assure the child that these things are not present. Or they may try to explain to the child that they are safe because the monsters are not real. The former is effective because it tells the child that they have correctly identified the threat thus making it possible for mom or dad to neutralized it, while the latter will inevitably fail as the child knows it to be false. “Ghost” is a word for something not ok that the child cannot yet identify. It’s a feeling that there is something wrong here, something not quite right. Since the 5 senses say that everything is in order it is not so unreasonable that they might suspect something otherworldly.

What this leap to the paranormal skips over is the particular status of the human animal. We do not merely possess our senses of perception, but our capacity for representation. Those things that are not present as far as sensation is concerned are present nonetheless. Unlike the rodent who escapes the snake by retreating to his shelter where the snake is no longer present, for us, the snake once perceived is now part of our inner world. We cannot escape the feeling because we cannot escape the reality. When we grow up we know that there are no ghosts in the closet or monsters under the bed, yet this knowledge does not prevent a feeling of unease when the room goes dark and quiet. At this time everything out of which we have constructed our inner world demands the attention we have actively denied it amidst the noise and the clutter of the day. We are confronted with the inescapable reality of everything that is not ok and that we still feel as though we’re being haunted.

Not only can we not rationally deny that everything is not ok, we are existentially incapable of doing so. When one suggests that “the world is a beautiful place” — as apposed to the more appropriate, “the world consists of many beautiful things,” — they are not merely failing others morally, but sinning against themselves. We are not mere sense perceiving animals hiding in holes; we are animals that carry the world with us everywhere we go. When we choose to see only the beauty we are denying the toxins that we are already carrying.

Why, you may ask is it the horrors that must define our world? Why is it acceptable to say that the world is a harsh or rotten place but morally irresponsible to say the opposite? Think of it in terms of the scientific method. When one makes a claim about the world, they are making a positive statement, i.e. this is how the world works. A claim is accepted by the scientific community once it has been proven every single time it is tested. More importantly for our purposes here, a theory need only be proven false once for it to longer be considered valid. Richard Dawkins has often said that disproving evolution is easy since you would only need to find one fossil that doesn’t jive with the evolutionary timeline (paraphrased). If ever we were to witness a tadpole mature into a goldfish we would no longer be able to state emphatically that “tadpoles are baby frogs.” By the same token one could not rightly claim that this was a free country prior to the 13th Amendment. It was true that there was freedom here and that many people possessed it. But what would we think of Abraham Lincoln had he stood up and proclaimed that ‘some choose to look at the country and see the slavery, but I choose to maintain a positive outlook and see the free men’? Certainly we would not refer to him as a glass-half-full optimist. It was not a free country despite the presence of many freedoms for many people.

We may also think of it in terms of our own evolutionary past. As animals we were at ease when the snake was not present. Therefore it was the danger in the world, the horror, that was the positive claim, and the safety or good feelings were the negative. Collecting food, finding shelter, or procreating was not done for the sake of fun or positive feelings, but survival. It is only recently that we have created and pursued positive things in the world.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “All truths that are kept silent become poisonous.”[1] By claiming that everything is ok because our sense perceptions find no immediate dangers we are attempting to revert back to our animal selves. Unfortunately we cannot un-create our inner worlds and our representative capacities. The more we attempt to cherry pick the content of that inner world — the harder we rage against those unpleasant thoughts and realities — the louder they become. We cannot help but feel their presence, but by refusing to think them we become alienated from those feelings. They are then experienced as an external threat creeping into our closets and under our beds. It is the world itself that haunts us. It was always the world.

[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The portable Nietzsche. New York: Viking Press, 1968.

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