In last week’s column I wrote about a pervasive anxiety about the state of things in general which currently focuses on the seemingly unstoppable spread of criminal activity and violent crime in society. This creates fear and tension and an endless feeling of insecurity which, among other things, is not at all conducive to the strengthening of democratic institutions and the long-term preservation of civil rights. Given the choice between safety and the traditional freedoms there is strong evidence to show that people prefer safety.
Unfortunately, anxiety in Guyana today stems more fundamentally than simply from fear of crime. There is a generalized dread that bad trouble is bound to go on flowing from the disruptive, unhealable, seemingly eternal antagonism between Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese. The bad trouble is seen as permanent dominance by one or the other race or as economic stagnation and decline caused by the racial division or as gradual societal breakdown with salvation seen in exile or as “trouble in the streets” or as “no future for the children.” There is a generalized anxiety about the condition of humanity in this place where we live. And this anxiety grows day by day despite every effort to play down its seriousness.
There is something else just as fundamental to consider. Let us never forget in our sophisticated musings that the experience of grinding poverty is the worst, but probably least analysed, anxiety of all. Never to be able to put aside enough for the most basic needs tomorrow or even the day to come as morning breaks, never to know the shelter of a decent, or any, dwelling, never to have the means to teach yourself or harbour any hope that your children will be taught, never to have the means to cure sickness, never to feel secure for a day, even for an hour, never to enjoy any memory of love or comfort or praise or encouragement – this must be dread of an entirely different kind, of an extremity beyond conception, a deep and limitless anxiety out of reach, I admit, of my estimation or the adequate estimation of anyone who writes about such things. I simply note it, I cannot analyse it. But it must be there, the deep anxiety of the hopeless poor, breeding crime, reinforcing ignorance, cultivating hatreds, clinging to ranters and ravers, fuelling bitterness, latching on to desperate remedies, nursing ethnic division and mutual suspicion, creating the underlying communal tension from which only serious poverty reduction will allow us to escape.
And yet, sadly, escape can never be the last word. I write as one who greatly enjoys life but knows that it is fleeting. Even if all our problems were miraculously solved, even if we came to live in a peaceful, prosperous, settled and even serene society, I regret to report that mortal man will not escape the basic dread of existence. It is bred deep in us and there is nothing we can do to avoid it since no one remains forever young. For it is a rule of life that as one ages anxiety grows. In youth one feels safe and immortal. As the years lengthen that expectation fades to nothing. The dark angels of illness, accident, injury and death visit strangers, the friends of friends, friends, relatives, family, one’s most beloved and oneself – not necessarily in that order. Roger Fanning’s poem conveys the basic experience of all humanity.
Boys Build Forts
Petrified teeth from some fierce – osaurus,
the rock my friend Donny and I piled up
in the middle of a field to build a fort.
The wind through its chinks made a desolate sound
I loved. We could have been out on the tundra,
bone-tired from tracking musk oxen all day.
It thrilled me to crouch in a cow pasture
and dream I could live here. I pictured
a cook fire, a skillet, two fried eggs
agog at my good fortune…Years later,
during puberty, I saw Charles Atlas
ads in the back of my comic books
and thought those muscles would look fine
on me. It was the same idea of building
a fort, the same ideal of self-sufficiency…
Of course it’s a crock. My parents are gone.
They left me a furnished house, everything
I pictured for my fort, and more: mildew
that wears marching boots, a roof that leaks. I see
how things stand. I see how people get sick.
Everybody that walks this earth
and all the ways we try to feel safe:
all are bound to fall apart. My sweet father
and mother, both dead. That cold creeps in
and I feel as though a bear has torn
my chest open, and ravaged the frail
honeycomb built there by my folks,
and left me in a field to fill with snow.