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Absence of Fear


On one of our last days in Iceland we went to the Volcano museum.  We thought we would learn about lava and magma.  What we got was a new world view that I’m trying to re-adopt this weekend.

The Volcano Museum is the back room of a cafe near Reykjavik’s harbor.  Our visit started with a brief explanation of the volcanic artifacts they had collected. Then we got a once-in-a-vacation chance to purchase lava dust (which I still can’t believe Thing1, as Southwestern Vermont’s foremost expert and advocate for the glorification of Eyjafjallajökull passed up).  The tour concluded with two thirty minute films.

This is what we learned from the films:

The continental divide between the Eurasian and North-American tectonic plates runs right through Iceland.  The plates are pulling apart, causing frequent eruptions of molten lava through crevices, volcanic explosions of ash and lava and earthquakes. 

Some of the eruptions have had catastrophic consequences for Europe and the rest of the planet. The 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, for example, shut down air traffic for weeks in Europe and prompted speculation that his neighbor, Katla might also blow.  And, she is not in the news much, Hekla, a.k.a the Gateway to Hell, erupted for 7 months in 1693, spewing ash all the way to Norway, choking streams and decimating fish populations in  the UK. She’s erupted at least once a century and is overdue by about 50 years.

And even though they are literally expecting the big one any day now, Icelanders don’t seem to be living in fear. Not one bit. 

Our tour guides talked about going to the heated swimming pools every morning, work, and grocery shopping.  They talked about getting their kids to school everyday and making plans.  

They are very well aware of their fiery neighbors, but they don’t live in fear of them because they’ve gotten to know them.  Icelanders have learned so much about volcanoes that there has been only one related death in the last century.  They have even learned how to harness for their domestic energy what most peoples would perceive to be a terrifyingly uncontrollable force of nature. In doing so, they seem to have starved the most crippling human force – fear.

I think few would deny that fear is fat and happy on our side of the Atlantic.  To be sure, there are real causes for concern. A shaky economy that has left too many people in the cold. Geopolitical and domestic divisions run deep through every demographic line we can imagine.  The reality, of course, is that these concerns are woven into the history of every country on earth, even the US.  Even Iceland. 

Recognizing these problems and really understanding them can inform our lives and spur us to find solutions that can make us stronger, or we can let them rule us, submitting to our own and others’ worst (and often unproductive) impulses.

FDR famously once wrote that courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.  Seeing an entire country live everyday without fear of the very real, uncontrollable forces nearby led me to believe that even more important than rising over our fears, may be recognizing whether or not we are letting them consume us and cause us to mistake activity for courage and then consider if those fears deserve to continue to be fed.