Faith in Play #5: Fear

This is Faith in Play #5: Fear, for April 2018.


I heard a comment on the radio to the effect that fear is a problem for intelligent imaginative people. The argument was that such people readily envision all kinds of terrifying possible outcomes of any situation, and so give themselves negative expectations. Stupid people, it was argued, don’t see what’s coming, but intelligent people think about all the possible outcomes and consequences in advance.

I am not persuaded. It is, after all, quite possible for someone to be afraid because they have been in a situation like this before and it led to a bad outcome; it is also quite possible to be frightened by a completely unfamiliar situation because you realize that you have no idea what might happen next. However, I can see that it is often the case that intelligent imaginative people frighten ourselves with what we conceive as possibly happening in the future. During the Cold War there were probably millions of people for whom the threat of nuclear annihilation was only a theoretical possibility discussed by politicians and military leaders and of no real concern to someone trying to get through the problems of ordinary life. It was intelligent writers, intelligent leaders, people with the ability to imagine what might happen, who were truly terrified of the possibilities. So there is some merit in the notion.

That caused me to wonder about the players in my games, and to suspect that you have seen something of the same in yours.

I wonder, because from the beginning I always had the impression that the majority of those who were interested in real role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons™ were mostly intelligent and imaginative. Yet when these people play, they often, in the personas of their characters, do courageous acts which border on madness. Recently a player character, and not a high level one, walked up to a sleeping cave bear and slapped it across the face. He was fortunate that his companions were mostly skilled fighters (he was not, being a cleric and a thief) and were able to prevent the bear from finishing a severe vengeance. So I wonder, why do these intelligent imaginative gamers take such insane risks? Why are they not afraid?

In the words of Bastian, “It’s only a story”—or in this case, a game. The only thing at stake for the player is an imaginary character—one to which he is undoubtedly somewhat attached, but also one whom he can easily recreate in another form if this one is destroyed. In essence, he has nothing at stake.

I have written about that before, most recently in mark Joseph “young” web log post #132: Writing Horror (translated and republished as Maîtriser l’Horreur by the French edition of Places to Go, People to Be), giving ideas about how to create a stake in the outcome so the player will experience the fear of the scenario. This time, though, I am thinking in the other direction:

Why are we afraid?

We believe in God the Father, a loving God who promises to care for us. We also believe that we are, as noted a couple months ago in Faith in Play: Portals, being moved out of this world into another. There is nothing here we cannot afford to lose. Running Multiverser, I have often quipped that the worst they can do is kill you, and you’ll survive that, so that’s not a big deal. That is the fiction in the game, but it’s our reality: they can take all your material possessions, they can even take your life, but they cannot take anything that matters.

I suppose we might reasonably fear pain and suffering, and I don’t want to minimize that—but then, is it not in some sense minimal? As one of the characters in my novels has said, I was shot, and it hurt a lot, and then I died, and then it didn’t hurt anymore. The duration of the pain might seem terribly long (and believe me, I know pain—before I had several kidney stones I poured flaming oil on my hand, and that was an eternal instant), but when set against even a lifetime it becomes a moment, and the lifetime itself is dwarfed by the expanse of eternity. We suffer from the perspective problem little children have: when you turn four years old, the time it will take for you to reach five years old is a quarter of your entire life to that point; when you are forty, that same fraction of your life will take you to fifty. Time seems to move faster as you age because every year is a smaller percentage of the total time you have been alive. A few years of suffering seems a long time now, but only because even in our old age we are still so young, have lived such a short time. Those years are a very small fraction of our anticipated eternal life—infinitesimal is the correct word for a fraction in which the numerator is finite and the denominator is infinity.

So perhaps we can learn this lesson from our games: we have nothing at stake in this world, nothing we cannot afford to lose, no possibility of any significant level or duration of pain. We need not fear—what can man do to us? God is for us. We are ultimately safe.


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