Fear. This is perhaps the most basic human emotion. Fear is encoded in our biological programming, as it was crucial to the survival of our species in the earliest days. It provides a palpable sense of some kind of danger that lies just ahead, waiting to lash out and strike us. Fear is inherent as we evolved to know what predators to avoid and what plants were poisonous, and fear is learned – passed down through familial, cultural, and religious traditions that shaped our sense of right and wrong; consequence and retribution.
The human mind craves certainty and familiarity; ever-grasping for control. The tighter we clutch what we think to be true; what comforts us, the more slips through our grasp. We strive to hold onto that which is most dear – identity, loved ones, normalcy – but find ourselves unmoored by the turbulence of change. We attempt to construct a framework of reality, which crumbles in the light of real life; all that is out of our control – and the scope of our control is at the heart of the smallest core of concentric circles.
Fear is the fountainhead of myriad secondary emotions such as anger, insecurity, and shame. It leads us to view life through the lens of scarcity – what are we lacking; what will we lose? At the crux of the human experience, fear whispers that we don’t belong; that we don’t have enough and that we are not enough, and in our primordial mind we know that to be rejected and ostracized would be a death sentence. Fear is the absence of kindness, mercy, and love.
Fear is the dark shadow that blankets the narrative of Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. He recounts his upbringing in the close-knit community of Sighet, surrounded by family and friends. These were years abundant with comfort, security, and tradition. Wiesel was a dutiful and impassioned Jewish scholar, with a mind eager to learn and absorb, and a heart open to receive the generous libations of his God’s blessings. And then in 1944, reality splintered and reflected new grotesque truths – prejudice, occupation, violence, hatred, death. Wiesel condemns the apathy and silence of his neighbors, world leaders, and even fellow Jews as they turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the horrors of the Holocaust.
The most insidious of Nazi cruelties was the poison of fear. Fear of abandonment, brutality, loss, and the merciless sins of man. What was happening to life as Wiesel knew it when he and the other Sighet Jews were forced into ghettos? As they huddled in the darkness of their desecrated synagogues? As they were brutishly crammed into cattle cars, being transported for days? As they arrived to the acrid smoke and cloying despair of the concentration camps? As they were starved and worked mercilessly, awaiting selection for death? What became of their loved ones who were separated from them? How could they assimilate in the world after their liberation? And where was God?
Fear was in the murderous air that Wiesel breathed in Buchenwald and Auschwitz. It was in the lost souls of his mother and sister, and the desperate entreaties of his father beside him in camp. It was in the watery soup and moldy bread; in the showers and the ash and the snow. Fear was constant, pervasive, and consuming. Wiesel describes the deep void that gaped within his soul – anger and doubt and the end of prayer. “I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy.” (Night, 86) How could an omniscient, omnipotent God allow this to happen? Why was He silent and detached? Was God absent or ambivalent? Did He ever care? Was He there? If Hell is the absence of God’s love, then the most chilling fear to a devout believer such as Wiesel must be that God abandoned him and the Jewish people during the Holocaust.
In Dawn, Elie Wiesel shifts from memoir to fiction as he tells the story of young Elisha, liberated from the death camps and recruited by the Jewish resistance movement in Palestine. He was tasked with executing a British army officer in retaliation for the occupying British military sentencing a Jewish resistance fighter to death. The ethical dilemma of the role that Elisha was thrust in is haunting him, and he is surrounded by the ghosts of his past – including himself as a child before the horrors of the Holocaust. Elisha is afraid of the decision he must make, in having to execute Captain John Dawson – he is afraid to even interact with him because of their common humanity. But he is also afraid that he has become a killer just like the Nazis, as he recounts a resistance attack: “It was then that the nausea overcame me. I saw the legs running like frightened rabbits and I found myself utterly hateful. I remembered the dreaded SS guards in the Polish ghettos. Day after day, night after night, they slaughtered the Jews in just the same way.” (Dawn, 165) This prospect terrifies him: that he survived the violence of the Nazi concentration camps only to become a harbinger of death himself.
Wiesel returns to reflect on the relationship with God in the novel Day, which chronicles how a Jewish man named Elizier attempted to assimilate into the world after surviving the Holocaust, and the psychological blowback from his failed suicidal gesture. In the hospital, recovering from being struck by a car, Elizier is presented with a portrait of himself. After years of trying to suppress his past and hide from the truth of his experiences, Elizier beheld his own visage: “I was there, facing me. My whole past was there, facing me… My eyes were a beating red… They belonged to a man who had seen God commit the most unforgivable crime: to kill without a reason.” (Day, 336) What corrodes the heart of religious fervor? The fear that God is not what we thought Him to be – a benevolent creator and protector of His children.
I would not dare to compare my suffering to Holocaust survivors, but I connect with the work of Elie Wiesel in regards to fear. For most of my life, I have grappled with comparison, insecurity, and jealousy. This mindset led to destructive behavior, an unhealthy lifestyle, and damaged relationships. Even when things seemed to be going well, I always waited for the shoe to drop – I thought it was too good to be true and that it would eventually disintegrate. Diving deeper into myself, peeling back each layer, behind the crippling anxiety and control issues, I found my fear. I was afraid of abandonment, betrayal, and pain. So I armored up, avoided, numbed, lashed out, and ran away in cyclical stages for so many years. I was afraid that all of my suffering pointed to the fact that I was not enough and that I was undeserving of love.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020, I fell to my knees and howled. In that moment I felt the culmination of a lifetime of fear of uncertainty, death, and the unknown. I was terrified of the bilateral mastectomy, the chemotherapy, the possibility of the cancer metastasizing or returning, and terrified of dying and leaving my young daughter behind. Fear kept me isolated in a dark well of depression for months as I underwent treatment earlier this year, and small moments of grace (only made possible by denying the fear that I was unworthy of the outpouring of loving support from my family and friends) were the rungs on the ladder that enabled me to claw my way up, out, and into the light.
The human mind is wired to need certainty, stability, and security. At a fundamental level, people fear change, loss, and pain. We fear the darkness, and we fear admitting that it’s an inevitable part of life. We fixate on the material; the knowable, and conjure up constructions of ourselves to present a polished veneer of cheerfulness and control to the world. We fear being alone and that being alone means we’re not worthy of belonging. We fear the prospect that God either doesn’t care about us or was never there to begin with.
Elie Wiesel’s work, his autobiographical experiences during Nazi occupation and the Holocaust as well as his fictional narratives, reveal this intersection of trauma and fear. The Night Trilogy also illuminates how people are so afraid to bear witness to the pain of others because to do so would be to acknowledge that horrible things happen, that people do horrible things, that horrible things could happen to us, and most likely already have. Is it any wonder, then, that Wiesel and his fictional protagonists were met with silence after the Holocaust? That they had to bury their trauma inside and move on with the rest of the world? A world that couldn’t handle the truth; a world that was afraid to reckon with the cruelty of tormentors and the pain of their victims. “Men cast aside the one who has known pure suffering… such a man frightens men, because he makes them feel ashamed… He suffers and his contagious suffering calls forth echoes around him.” (Day, 326)