Caesar in the Dark: Notes on Fear

Editor’s Note: In March 2010, we began posting the work of Enceno Macy, an inmate in a US prison. Enceno’s articles are sent handwritten, then typed and edited by a trusted editor. Comments typed into the response area will be sent directly to Enceno. Thanks for reading and for the warm response he’s received each time. –efc & ajp

By Enceno Macy

“Many men are so amazed and astonished with fear, they know not where they are, what they say, what they do.

Bronze staue of Augustus Caesar.

“…They that live in fear are never free, resolute, secure, never merry, but in continual pain: … no greater misery, no rack, nor torture like unto it, ever suspicious, anxious, solicitous, they are childishly drooping without reason, without judgment. … It causeth oftentimes sudden madness, and almost all manner of diseases. … Fear makes our imagination conceive what it list, invites the devil to come to us… and tyranniseth over our phantasy more than all other affections, especially in the dark. We see this verified in most men: what they fear they conceive, and feign unto themselves; they think they see goblins, hags, devils. … Augustus Caesar durst not sit in the dark, nisi aliquo assidente, saith Suetonius, nunquam tenebris exigilavit.”

– Robert Burton (1577-1640), “Anatomy of Melancholy,” 1621

Here I am writing from seg (solitary), as described in previous posts. I have been moved once again to another prison, cutting short the welding and college classes I was doing so well in. It is enough to make you wonder if the system simply cannot tolerate a prisoner doing well. Without a single record of violence, I can now claim the dubious accomplishment of having been in every major prison in the state.

Where I have been moved to is as far from my home and family — 500 miles — as you can get without leaving the state, and indeed if we could see out in that direction we’d be looking into the next state. The first thing you learn on coming here is that this place is huge. I mean really big. It’s got the equivalent of four different prisons in one. When the bus brought us here, it took staff two hours to come get us — every other prison it takes ten minutes — and everything is so far away they bring a golf cart to get us. There are three different sections, each with its own rec yard, gym and chow hall. The place has over 3,300 inmates, three mainline units, a four section hole (solitary): a Disciplinary Unit (DU), a Special Management Unit (SMU) for nutcases, an Intensive Management Unit (IMU) for long-term solitary, and a Special Housing Unit (SHU) for really bad guys who do five years there at a time. Oh, and a Protective Custody Unit. That’s a lot of bed space, so things take a long time to happen.

This place has a mixed reputation for racism and violence, but supposedly is not so bad as others I’ve been in. Right now I am focused on trying to clean a horridly filthy cell. The main negative I’ll face when I go mainline in a few days is that there are a lot more politics here, so it will be hard at first to fit in. My full concentration will be on staying out of fights. Since I am new here, I will once again have to go through the usual tests. Facing that ordeal confronts me once more with fears I hoped not to experience again.

In my opinion, fear is the most relatable emotion. Some people have a hard time empathizing with or understanding why certain things make others happy or sad, but fear is universal, everyone can relate to it. Much of life is built around fears — whether it’s fear for individual safety or survival, or with humans, fear of having (or not having) an emotion. In this latter sense, people invent things to make themselves and others happy, or at least to keep them from being sad. Materialistic people relieve fear by acquiring unique or exotic or just plain abundance of merchandise, while sentimental people may create a relationship so they don’t have to grow old alone.

The bottom line, I think, is that all fear derives from one thing: the avoidance of pain.

I am no authority on the psychology of fear, so I can only speak from experience. When you are young, I think there are three basic, identifiable causes of fear: the unknown, shame/embarrassment, and pain as punishment. These can all tie into each other in some way.

Fear of the unknown includes those familiar fears of being alone, of darkness, of big, loud, hairy things with teeth that go bump in the night — all fears stemming from not knowing what to expect. Fear of the unknown is why some people need to believe in god or an afterlife. If we all knew for certain that we were going to a special, happy place when we died, there would be little or no fear of dying any more. Many human experiments and explorations derive from our desire to prolong life, to know what hurts us and what is safe. To find and secure hope — fear’s worst enemy.

Fear of shame and embarrassment — fear of rejection — arises from our need as social beings for each other, our need to belong and feel the approval of those around us. Fear of rejection by our own kind is very powerful, as I’ve written before (see “Notes on Rejection”). Shame and embarrassment happen very early in life and only diminish as we get older and learn to avoid them. Peeing the bed, for example, or having to kiss your second grade teacher on the mouth if you don’t do your homework or get a bad grade. Okay, most people I hope have never had to do that, not in front of the whole class, especially when the teacher is old, wrinkly, and obese, with hairs in her nose and huge yellow teeth. No fun, I’ll tell ya. Most people, though, have had the experience of failing at something you should have succeeded in, or maybe you had a one-night stand with the wrong person, and you cringe just remembering it. Fear of repeating such moments is a subjective, healthy kind of fear.

The pain of punishment — physical and mental — overlaps the other two fears, which often are deliberately inflicted as punishment. As we get older, some fears subside and we inherit new ones. Much of what I used to be afraid of I have either overcome or learned to avoid. During my early years in prison, I used to take medication to quell my anxieties. The fear would mount up quickly and would turn physical. When I first came to jail at age 15, my fears were of a wide range and variety. When that cell door closed and I was left with just myself, the first fear that came to me was of my own thoughts. My life had been ruled by drugs, alcohol, and the excitement of adolescent adventure. I cried hard, wondering if I’d ever be able to numb the fear again.

After identifying a fear, the most important thing is to face it. As the hard, tough-nosed kid I tried to be, I believed I was fearless, but in reality I was afraid always of what was coming: the consequences of my actions. That’s what I had run from for my whole teenage life to that point.

When I was in grade school, I had been in a few schoolyard scraps, but nothing serious. Home was different. My adopted father used to spank me for what he perceived as negative or disobedient behavior. One day that same adoptive father punched me, and a different fear sprang into my life. Now I began to pay attention to serious pain as a punishment. After more than a few of these incidents, he was gone from my life. But now I thought differently. Life was more serious. The scraps I started getting into involved anger and malice. They were few, but they were much more intense. Rightly or not, my fears of being threatened and then punished with pain made me act fearless. I pretended to be scared of nothing, when really I ran from everything. I tried to inspire fear in others before they could do so in me. I tried to live fast to keep ahead of the fear, but when that cell door shut, everything screeched to a halt.

Those first few days and weeks, I cried a lot. I missed my girlfriend and lifestyle. I wasn’t even a little scared of going to prison yet, but I grieved for what was gone — grief being another sort of fear, the fear of losing something you’ll never get back again. But no one knew I cried, and I acted like I didn’t care, even when I knew I was going to be around much bigger, badder criminals, and I grew to fear I’d be threatened and punished when I refused to cooperate or become like them.

That fear never goes away, but it didn’t materialize in reality for me. For whatever reasons, older criminals have an instinct to help a youngster in distress, at least when he shows heart and does not come off as a victim or as arrogant. Maybe it’s brotherly or fatherly, or maybe they just finally find someone who will listen to them. I was lucky to be tutored by such older, tougher criminals. The main theme was: eat or be eaten. Predator/prey. It turned out the same principles I’d used in acting fearless on the street applied ten times as much in jail. All I had to do was not be seen as weak and I’d be okay. In other words, walking among monsters I had to look like a monster.

Not long after I accepted this readjusted mentality I tried it out and was successful. The fear didn’t stop there, though. I believe much fear is learned, and it can take many years to unlearn it. But the fear of being prey is not a bad one to hold onto or keep in reserve; it helps a person stay out of trouble and keep him safe. The prey fear is now dormant in me, but it took a lot of learning and understanding of human nature for me to control it. At times I thought it would be easier to relinquish myself, to give in to it, but that’s not who I am. What was important to me was establishing that I had a place and a purpose here and on Earth in general. In some way, I look on my fears gratefully, because, by making me act a certain way, those fears made it possible for me to be who I am today — to have confidence and faith in myself and to maintain the courage I mustered every time I was afraid. As is well known, courage is not the absence of fear; it is understanding that the objective is more important than you and doing what is necessary in spite of your fear.

Learning to control or numb fear meant not letting it control the rest of my life. Now I have to ask, since I have overcome other fears, why can’t I overcome all fears? Well, some just may not be overcomable. If there is such a word. My only two active fears now are of my mother passing away and of my failure to live a successful, productive life. What I am learning is not only to identify and face my fears, but also to accept fears of things beyond my control. At this point in my life, I am at peace with much of this fear.

In a few days I will get out of seg (isolation) and will yet again have to face the old fears of predator/prey. Every new prison is its own jungle, and I will be tested as always. I am okay with that and respect it for being part of the way the world is. A world which, despite all the ugliness and negativity, I have grown to love and respect. Facing my fears is what has made me able to feel such love and respect; it has strengthened me and I am proud of myself for it.

Maybe you have an ongoing fear or a new one. Join the club. Because fear and how we deal with it are simply part of being human. No one is exempt, so you’re not alone. Face your fear and you will see the beauty of human nature and of nature as a whole. Have courage and faith, no matter what size the fear — it is a manifestation of your own making, from your own mind, so you can control it. Don’t let it control you. Be strong and stand firm.

That is what I tell myself, gearing up to face that new yard, those new faces, those great unknowns.

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8 Responses to Caesar in the Dark: Notes on Fear

  1. awordedgewise awordedgewise says:

    You are A Light in Dark Places.

    Thank you, Enceno.

  2. Lizzy Huffy says:

    Thank you dear Enceno, for your stunning piece on fear. And thank you PW for publishing this. I myself am experiencing a lot of fear at the moment, though nothing like the fear that you’ve had to deal with, dear Enceno. However I’ve lost a lot of work, and am not sure how I’m going to make it in the next months. But I’ve been working a lot on fear – and realize, just as you say – that the only way to deal with fear is to turn towards it and face it.
    The zen Buddhist writer Charlotte Joko Beck is brilliant on fear. In her book Everyday Zen she write about ‘the razor’s edge’ – saying that when you open up to fear and allow yourself to feel it, you become fearless. I really recommend her if you haven’t already read her stuff.
    However, you’re working it all out for yourself dear Enceno. You are truly remarkable, and a gifted writer. Keep writing, cos there’s definitely a book in there!
    I wish you all the best
    Liz

  3. geminicheryl says:

    “My only two active fears now are of my mother passing away and of my failure to live a successful, productive life.”

    Enceno, please reconsider your fear of your failure to live a successful, productive life because it is my belief you are already doing so. We each of us do this by moving through our life experiences, using it all as material for our self-understanding and growth. By manifesting our truth, and living it we are allowing others the same opportunity. You have developed a fine mind, a connective writing style, and a soulful heart. Thank you for sharing yourself with us.

    . . . and remember, in regards to fear of death, none of us get out of here alive!

  4. KatLyons says:

    Hi Enceno – I am relatively new to Planet Waves, so this is the first of your posts that I have had the honor to read. I am a therapist that has worked in a jail setting and am sometimes called to help people who are processing out of prison to reuinite with their families. This is just to say, that I am a little familiar with the world that you are in. I appreciate your, no doubt, hard won insight into yourself and into the nature of fear and the world, your taking the time to write such a carefully constructed and thoughtful letter AND your risk in sharing your writing with those of us joined together with you in this forum. I totally agree with you that “fear is a manifestation of your own making.”

    Normally, I would ask your permission before making a recommendation, but because of the communication process, I am going ahead and hope you will forgive me if this seems presumptuous. If you get a chance, get a book by Byron Katie, “Loving What Is: four questions that can change your life.” And, if you have on-line access, go to http://www.thework.com. They will probably have that book in the prison library, as she gives presentations in prisons all over the US and in other places (not just prisons) of the world, too. Her work mirrors much of what you wrote about fear and other stessful thoughts and feelings, and she has an elegent process of inquiry that is a powerful and simple way to cut through underlying beliefs. I taught it one time to a guy who had spent much of his 25 years (total) in prison seg units and to his 9 year old son. His son, I remember, had the belief that he was different from the other kids because his dad was in prison, and so it wasn’t ok for him to play baseball. When we did the inquiry process, in just a few minutes, he found his own answer within himself – that it was ok for him to play baseball no matter what was going on with his dad! He realized he wasn’t suffering because his dad was in prison – it was his beliefs that were causing his problem. He got that! His dad did some really important work, too. Anyway, if you can’t find the book, and would like to read it, write back to Eric with your contact information, and I’ll check out the rules where you are at for sending things, and, in any case, have it sent directly from the publisher to you, as that is the usual rule.

    By the way, later this month, I am going to a three day conference on Prisons, Peace and Compassion. The goal of the conference is to write a recommendation paper to be sent to an international UNESCO conference of the same name in Paris in 2012. I hope you are heartened to know that many people all over the world are concerned about conditions of prisons and are workng for their improvement. As I’m writing this, it occurs to me that whether an action is done in a group setting in Paris or by you working from the inside, it all comes down to one person, one kindness, one letter, one act of courage, one breath at a time – none more or less important than another. Best wishes. Kat

  5. shebear13 shebear13 says:

    “Facing my fears is what has made me able to feel such love and respect; it has strengthened me and I am proud of myself for it.”

    Enceno: You have more than earned your right to be proud.

    I really hate that you lost your place in the welding class and studies – duh? – and yet you’re not venting your head off at the injustice and stupidity of it all? You are a prisoner in a jail but you appear to me to be one of the freest people I know. Amazing. I’m in awe of the depth of your hard fought humanity, forged in the face of deprivation. Thank you for opening my eyes to life inside prison and keep on developing that inner strength you have worked and fought so hard for.

    I’m going my best to stand alongside you, to “be strong and stand firm” in my own attempts to break free from the prisons of my fears and limitations. You are one heck of an inspiration, I must say.

    Thank you for this and all your writings.

  6. Hazel1 Hazel1 says:

    Enceno, thank you for writing for us.

  7. jparoby says:

    Wonderful insight and exploration.

  8. Len Wallick Len Wallick says:

    Enceno,
    Thank you for taking on yet another difficult topic with amazing grace, inspiring eloquence and exemplarity sanity. Every time i read your words i am humbled. Every time i learn something. Every time you contribute to my growth. Thank you. You inspire me to appreciation and achievement.

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