We’re studying fear as the semester rapidly winds down and seniors, especially, are confronted with making some important decisions or fully understanding the reality of choices they’ve already made about their future. Making plans for the future is exciting, scary, and as adults are well aware, doesn’t always go as intended. Fear of failure can be a powerful motivator for some but a roadblock for others who are paralyzed by what might happen. However, the fear we are studying in literature classes involves the kind of fear even adults confess to having from time to time.
Phil Ochs, a 1960s folksinger, wrote a song called ”Outside a Small Circle of Friends” in which he reminds the listener of the ramifications of a fear so powerful that it cost the life of a young woman in 1964 where upwards of 38 witnesses stood by as a man stalked her early one morning and stabbed her repeatedly while the witnesses heard screams of pain and cries for help.
The incident is a powerful reminder of the effect fear can have on a community that, in this case, led to mass apathy. In a stark reminder of how times haven’t really changed very much; one witness said that while looking out his window had become a nightmare, he pointed at his neighbors and remarked, “there are people over there who saw everything...and there hasn’t been a peep out of them.”
It’s the “pointing fingers” excuse that is so prevalent in society when we try to excuse our behavior by pointing to the behavior of others. In the case of the young woman, everyone wondered why nobody else was doing anything. Apathy isn’t always about fear but is usually rooted in some form of selfishness. Students have a remarkable ability to recognize that the apathetic attitude can spread like a disease, just as fear can grip a whole neighborhood.
As one student pointed out: Shakespeare’s Caesar famously exclaimed that, "Cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once," proving that fear is a historically common feature of the human condition which can lead to apathy unless we’re valiant in service to our fellow man and honest with ourselves about what should be done.
Lance Scranton is a teacher and a coach at Moffat County High School.