31 July, 2013
I open my mouth to scream, but nothing comes out. There's a vice in my chest preventing me from doing anything other than staring in horror at the chasm opening to swallow us.
To my left, a bloodcurdling shriek. I'm unsure if that was my son, Josh, or if it was my own adrenaline-delayed, terrified bellow.
Time slows. There is no escape.
I will not let this defeat me.
I know almost as many people who love Frank Herbert's Dune series of novels as those who detest them. Whether you think his florid prose is worthy of applause or ridicule, his methods for predicting the far future distance his work from his contemporaries. His conceit was to take current philosophy and imagine what damage could be caused by those ideologies given enough time and resource.
The neat side effect of this was to allow him to say a lot about the fundamentals of human nature.
One of his favourite topics was the mastery of fear. Fear, to Herbert, was for the animals. Humans could master fear, animals could not, and thus the understanding and control of our own fears was central to the human self.
"Fear", quotes Paul Atreides, "is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain."
The scream snaps me from my shock. We're about to be hit again. I lean forward in my seat, expecting a weave to the right this time. It hits, throwing me to the side. I grip the handles and let the panic subside, realising for a moment that a substantial grin has forced its way on to my face.
I start to laugh as the world drops from under me and we hurtle to the ground at breakneck speed.
Fear paralyses. For we who live in a modern, built world, the sorts of things we fear tend to revolve around failure, around ridicule. We fear loss, we fear betrayal, we fear things that our society has often invented for us to fear.
And when I say "society", I really mean "we". We have invented our own demons, invented our own gods, our own rewards and punishments. Realising that the entire world we live in has been built and invented and designed is the first step.
The final step is understanding (and then accepting) that this means we can change it any time we like.
There are many steps in between, though. One of those steps, I think, is realising just how deep the invention goes. Right, wrong, up, down: all of these things are entirely invented by people who made decisions before we were born. This is not to say that those inventions are meaningless, or not based on any fundamental truths. It may be that failing to see this leads to a rejection of all social norms, which in turn leads to sociopathic behaviour.
I do not think that sociopathy is a step towards enlightenment.
Rather, I think that the key realisation is that the invention is in the details: it's in the idea that there is not—that there never can be—an absolute truth about anything in this world. Some things may be "true", some things may not be, but most occupy a large swathe of grey where "it depends" may never be convertible into a "yes" or a "no", regardless of how much information you add. π cannot be written as a decimal regardless of how many digits you write.
In many ways, this first roller coaster ride was a journey into the future. It was certainly an excursion into the unknown. I had no idea how I would react, and my initial response was of abject terror. But then it occurred to me that there was no way off the ride. I could choose at that point to remain terrified for the duration, or try to change my viewpoint. I found that leaning forward, riding it like a horse or a bike, and following just in front of the lead car with my eyes helped me to balance myself. My fear left, replaced by exhilaration, by dint of a simple realisation:
This ride was invented.
It was designed and built and followed certain rules. Even if I didn't know the exact rules, I could play along by losing the fear.
I could master my fear, because when it came down to it, the danger I faced was in my own mind.
And after all, it was just a ride.