This time last year, I was in fear of my old website. In truth, I still kind of am. Doom on Repeat began as a news satirization blog, and as I described last February, I can’t be a satirist. I’m not that good at it. I don’t really enjoy it. And above all, writing satirically indulged my worst desires to not only mock, demean, and antagonize others, but to hope for their failures. I found myself “being swayed by cruelty,” and that scared me; I feared of fully turning into that kind of person and that kind of writer. So I remade the site, reoriented it towards thoughtful retrospectives of the news, and declared it a victory over the “writer I no longer fear of becoming.”
And I kept the name.
Our past mistakes that we’re doomed to repeat very frequently arise from an unwillingness to pay a visit to our fears. And by “visit,” I don’t simply mean walking by the place we keep them to ensure that they’re still there. I mean a deep, thoughtful, and honest conversation between ourselves and the things that we are afraid of. It isn’t enough to just say, “I fear being a cruel writer.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good start; cruelty is a personal characteristic that we would all benefit from having less of. But the simple identification of a fear is reactionary, like reeling from the sight of a spider or the mere thought of speaking publicly. Knowing what we fear is obvious; knowing why we fear what we fear, however, can be revelatory.
For the latter half of 2015, that was my task: determining exactly why I feared being cruel, and being a cruel writer. More importantly, why did I fear my own particular brand of cruelty, as I express and practice it? See, that’s the brutal part, the part that one could even say is a little cruel. It’s easy to visit our fears from afar and take comfort in the general conception of those fears: “Oh, everyone is afraid of what may happen this election season. And everyone fears losing their house, or their job, or their friends. I’m no different.” But you are different. We all share common fears, yes, but each of those fears mean something a little different to each of us and our particular circumstances. We like to visit our fears from a distance because from far enough away, those fears look pleasantly generic and easy targets for the latest self-help platitudes about being fearless. It’s when we sit down with them, when hold them in careful examination that we begin to understand that these are not some off-the-shelf aversions. They are dreads specially shaped by the craftsmanship of a unique and familiar mind.
Why do I fear my own cruelty? Because when I’m cruel, I want to inflict doubt. When I’m cruel, I delight in driving people to question their beliefs, ideas, relationships, and passions. When I satirized, it wasn’t to encourage people to thoughtfully reexamine themselves and the world around them, though I certainly would have said as much at the time; the reality is that I just wanted to see others destabilized, unraveled, and in emotional suffering. I didn’t know any of that about myself when I wrote last February’s piece (whose title, “The Malice Faces In,” feels particularly suited for this topic), and I don’t even think I was ready to know any of it. Visiting our fears is about natural, incremental progress. It’s like developing any other relationship: you learn their names, you introduce yourself, and every day you work towards knowing them a little better, towards knowing yourself a little better, with greater and greater richness.
There’s a temptation on my part to write a guide on how to visit our fears, but I think our fears are too specific to ourselves to respond to specific suggestions from others. I do think, however, that you need courage. And kindness. You need the former in order to jump into the darkness, and you need the latter for what you eventually find in it, because you’re not going to uncover some spiky, spitting inner demon waiting in ambush. You’re going to encounter something akin to what I found: a creature very much like yourself, drawing pictures in the ashes, and wondering what you intend to do with it. And in that moment, be kind. Fear is information, and how you rescue your fears from themselves is information about you.
I don’t want to be cruel. I don’t want to be cruel, because when I am, I lack compassion. It seems incredibly dumb that I have to that spell something that simple out for myself, but we all get caught up in negative mindsets and situations that leave us blind to very obvious conclusions. That’s when we need information about ourselves, not just to avoid repeating past mistakes, but often to simply bring ourselves back. And from there, how we might go forward.
Last February, though I identified what kind of writer I didn’t want to be, I had yet to figure out what kind of writer I wanted to become. Since then, my fears are just some of the voices that have been gently encouraging me to become a compassionate writer, and I’m inclined to agree. I enjoy it. I think I’m pretty good at it. And I suspect I have the potential to be superb at it, even if I don’t quite know yet what a “compassionate writer” even looks like. Frankly, it sounds like something I would have previously satirized, hoping to cast doubt on such a nutty idea. But now, I like the idea of it. It conveys a belief in all of us—all of our fears included—and that’s something worth writing about.