I have said recently — I have said often — that the basis of all human evil, if it is clearly understood, is fear. The corollary of that is that the most needed virtue is courage. However, although fear can and does create evil, it is not in itself bad, which is a good thing since it is inevitable. It is our instinctive reaction to perceived danger and triggers our immediate responses to fight or fly. The most basic instinct — probably more basic even than instinct since it is a part of vegetable as well as animal life — is survival. Whether other animals feel fear in the same way that human beings do is up for grabs, but they certainly react in the same ways as we do to fear when they seem endangered.
Halloween is sort of the celebration of fear. It’s interesting that the several places I looked up Halloween on line have mentioned the association of Halloween with All Saints Day as if it were mere happenstance that they occur on successive days. My understanding is that it was no accident. It was not the only holiday that was widely celebrated by the Celtic pagans whom the early church wished to convert that got co-opted by them and made a part of the church year. Halloween, which is celebrated in many of the same ways that Samhain was celebrated, and on the same day, means, literally, the evening before All Saints Day — All Hallows Eve. Although it is theoretically the following day, November 2nd, that is supposed to be celebrated as All Souls Day, when we remember and honor those who have died in the previous year, over time that has been conflated with All Saints, probably because of Halloween, the time when the spirits of another plane break through and visit ours. Although logically it would seem that those spirits would be simply those of the humans who have died, that has probably never been the case. It has always included the really scary things like fiends and demons and witches along with the spirits of the departed.
As an aside, it’s interesting to look at the controversy surrounding the “correct” pronunciation of Samhain. It is a matter of pride to know it, of contempt to hear the ignorant pronounce it differently. Except, of course, there’s no way to know how the ancient Celts pronounced it, and they certainly never spelled it. The one that is accepted as right by those who are sure there is a right way is Irish Gaelic and even there, there are those who argue that it should be Sahvin not Sahwin. I suppose one should note the log in one’s own eye. I get a little sniffy about people who don’t know that you-all is plural.
There are repeated attempts to sanitize Halloween. Certain churches like the Southern Baptists and various Pentecostal and evangelical Christians would like to ban it altogether, considering it downright sinful. Rationalists sometimes join them, though coming from a different point of view, in their disapproval of the celebration of the supernatural. Others who, without wanting to do away with it altogether, would like to protect their children from any sense that the world is not always a lovely and beautiful place would like it to be significantly cleaned up. This is rightly firmly resisted by the children. Except for our little princesses of whom I must admit I was always one, far preferring the pretty to the scary, kids love the most horrible costumes. Zombies, mummies and wicked witches abound when they are given their heads, which they usually are not.
I think we go way too far in our protectiveness of our children. Although it is true that we would never be able to forgive ourselves if something happened to them while we were allowing them to venture and dare, we are crippling their growth into the time when they will have to face the world on their own and learn that it really is not safe. At the same time, it seems to me, we are instilling irrational fears — our own fears — by our overprotection. My gated community does not stretch more than half a mile from one end to the other, and yet the cars lined up at the school bus stop make hazardous driving for the childless leaving or coming home. I keep asking myself what these parents think is going to happen to their children in that bare half-mile. They couldn’t even get lost. Children can create their own fears. We don’t need to give them ours.
Associated with this, I think, are those who feel that children should not be told fairy tales for fear that they will not be able to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. They may actually believe all those Halloween demons are real. And for a while they might. I remember as a child I really hoped that there were such things as fairies. I would look for them without really expecting to see them, and I reveled in a book that my mother had called The Flower Fairy Book that had on each page a beautiful illustration of a flower with its resident fairy. I adored fairy tales, as long as they weren’t by Hans Christian Anderson (I still think he must not have liked children very much) and I think now that it was because, rather than in spite of that, that today I have no trouble at all distinguishing between fantasy and reality. And I still like fantasy.
There is a book by famed (and controversial) psychologist Bruno Bettelheim called The Uses of Enchantment that argues that very clearly. To Bettelheim, allowing children to confront their very real fears of abandonment, loss and death through fantasy enables them to be prepared to confront them healthily in reality. He, himself, as a survivor of the holocaust, saw a reality at least as bad as any fairytale fantasy might be, but he did survive. That may well have colored his opinions, but I believe from my own experience that he was right. Loving fantasy, I am far less likely to believe fantasy presented as truth than many people are.
The ultimate fear, the fear from which all others spring and that couples Halloween with All Saints Day is the fear of death. We rational adults mostly say quite truthfully, that we do not fear death. It is the natural end of life, something that all of us must face sooner or later. We probably do not believe in the fantasies of hideous punishment for our sins nor extravagant rewards for a virtuous life. We might fear dying, the possible suffering, the loss of dignity, but death itself is nothing to fear if we prepare for it properly, and even if we don’t, of course, we won’t know the difference. That’s what our conscious mind tells us and it is what we really believe. And what, I think, is really true. Underneath, however, in that part of our brain that keeps our hearts beating and our lungs pumping, the fear is there. We can’t get rid of it any more than we can stop our own breath. It is even deeper than the unconscious. It is physical. It is also very useful, as it is that that comes to our aid when we are confronted with danger that we can avoid. Without even thinking we confront or escape and possibly only later realize how very afraid we were at the time. Even for rational adults, then, it is probably cathartic to confront imaginary demons, and may even give us some practice in dealing with the real ones, as well as helping us distinguish between the two.
There is another fear of death that we all have, wholly rational, wholly real, that no imaginary demon can palliate, no fantasy can deny, and that is the fear of losing those we love. The longer we live the more unavoidable it becomes, and it never, it seems to me, gets any easier. Even when it is expected, even longed for, when it happens it is a grief for which we can never be entirely prepared. It has been seventeen years since my mother died. It was not unexpected, and she had been ill for so long that in a sense our mourning for her was really over by the time we heard the news that it had happened. Yet even today there will be a pang when I think, “I should tell my mother this. She would be interested.” Or, “I wonder what mother would think about that?” She had been a brilliant woman and her opinions were always worth hearing, but one of the reasons we were not agonized by her death was her own sadness that the flashing brilliance of her wit had been dulled by her illness. Still, so often, I find myself wishing I knew what she would say about something I’m thinking of, or that I could ask her about a line of poetry or a childhood memory. It is a pang that never loses its sharpness, but it is nevertheless a comfort to remember.
When I officiate at a memorial service, before I open it to everyone to speak, if they wish, about the person who has died, I say, “As living memories we offer the greatest gift that we can give to one another.” I think that really is true. Sometimes when someone is grieving about a death we try to avoid reminding them about it. We don’t talk about the person who has died, or refer to anything that might bring it to the surface. It is the worst mistake we can make. Even when the loss is still in its first agony, to talk about the person, to remember incidents and qualities, even perhaps to rail against them, since anger is often one of our feelings when our beloved has deserted us by dying, is a comfort. Each year at this service, as we did earlier, we speak the names of those who have died in the previous year. We do it to honor them and remember them. Because it is ritual and therefore has boundaries, those names are the only ones we speak, but that doesn’t mean that we do not also honor the other dead whose lives touched and influenced our own, or that we forget them.
There is enchantment not based on fantasy but reality, a use of the imagination that keeps those whom we love alive to us. There is a beautiful poem by Archibald MacLeish called “Heart’s Remembering”. It was set to music and was in our previous hymnal. It is not one that I’ve tried to keep alive in this congregation because the tune, though beautiful, is one that congregations find difficult to sing unless it’s done on a fairly regular basis, but it is a sad loss to us, I think. Anyway, the last verse says, “Than trampling death is grief more strong, love than its avatars, and echo of an echoed song shall reach the eternal stars.” Our grief itself is stronger than the deaths we mourn. It keeps those we love before us in memory and imagination. Whether they are remembered or not we know that their living made a difference, not just to us but to all that there is, but our grief and our remembering conquer death and it shall have no dominion.
Halloween and All Saints Day, back to back, enable us to understand and face our fears. Halloween is about the fears that are so deep they are even below instinct in our beings the fear of death that sometimes drives us. All Saints Day helps us overcome the real and rational open fear of the deaths of those whom we love best. For both it is our imaginations that paradoxically keep us grounded. The monster under the bed, the horror lurking in the dark, can be confronted, laughed at, dismissed. The real loss, the sadness can be comforted and those we love can live again in our remembering.