Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Duc in Altum

All my life I have been afraid of the dark.  I felt sheepish about this for a long time, until the year before college when I found out that St. Francis de Sales was also afraid of the dark.  Nothing like having a wise old patron saint who shares one of your weaknesses!  Of course, St. Francis reportedly "conquered his fear by spiritual wisdom," whatever that means—which I suppose just goes to show who's still a long way from being canonized.

Of course, the dark itself is seldom feared.  What I was afraid of—what I suspect St. Francis was afraid of—what all of us are made to tremble at—is what the dark might contain.  The Unknown, and not the dark, is the real enemy.  Perhaps that is why I have always thought it a little silly to suppose that the tiny, courageous knight shouting "Show thyself, monster!" in front of a cave was quite so courageous as he's made out to be.  If the monster were to show himself, the knight would feel far less afraid.  I know, because I used to deal with bad dreams in the same way.  "Monster, show thyself!"  It was never quite as bad getting eaten as it was waiting for the eater to appear.

It's a grand way to deal with bad dreams, and perhaps with dragons as well; but the line doesn't work in real life.  Try it the next time you're sitting in the dentist's patient room, working up a sweat as you wait your turn, struggling with your fear of the unknown ...  How many teeth will it be this time?  What will They use? the wrench? the pick? the saw? the needle?  You rub your hands together.  A salty trickle slides down the side of your face.  The little tyke with the Fisher Price car (you know, the blue and yellow one he's been running over your shoes for the last half hour) looks up curiously, and whispers to his mother.  "Mommy, why is that man crying?"

You can't stand it.  You jump up, turning the coffee table with a crash; magazines go flying and five squabbling children reel shocked into their four mother's arms.  You charge towards the front desk, seize the cold marble in both hands, and eyes glowing shriek at the nurse: "Monster, show thyself!"

Next stop, psyche ward.  As I said, not the most effective way to deal with dental anxiety.

Too much of life is like that.  You can't make the interview or the test or the deadline come faster.  "Tell me the worst!" the cancer patient says; but all too often the doctor can't do that.  The worst case scenario in that drama is death; but even in most cancer cases death is by no means certain, just as even the bad student is never quite assured of failure until it comes.  And because the world cannot show us How Bad It Will Be, we who are a little afraid of the dark tend sometimes to paint that picture in the blackest colors we can.  Better and safer to resign oneself to a very large and deadly dragon than to look forward to a lowly worm.  One is less likely to be overwhelmed when the monster does come.

Of course, this is craven behavior.  The knight who cries "Monster, show thyself!" is nearly always a bit of a coward.  The pessimist, whatever his external assumption of superiority, knows deep down inside that he's not a brave man—not nearly as brave as the optimist, who has the courage and the strength to bear disappointment.

I do not mean to be too hard on the knight and his latter day kin—after all, I come, as I confessed, from a similar strain myself.  There is something laudable in crying "Monster, show thyself!" and something brave about plunging into the cave—something braver and more laudable, indeed, than there is in running away.  But the really brave knight is the one who unsheathes his sword, lies it ready on the grass, and sits beneath the tree to eat his lunch while he waits for the dragon to arrive.


  1. Interesting post. Sounds to me like the difference between the virtue of courage and continence. In the knight's defense I would point out that he is frequently too young to have had the experience required for complete virtue. ;)

  2. To be sure, the knight is too young. Et tu? ;)