Science Fiction Wisdom: Litany Against Fear – Dune, Frank Herbert

I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear;

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past,
I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing:

Only I will remain.

I have a confession to make: I’ve never read any of the Dune novels; I’ve only seen the film of Dune once, and I didn’t manage to follow what was going on.

But the Litany Against Fear still had a profound effect on me when I heard it spoken by Paul Atreides as he placed his hand in a device that causes excruciating pain, at the instruction of a member of the Bene Gesserit Order.

Paul Atreides with the leader of the Bene Gesserit order.

The possibility that fear was something that one could face, and come out the other side unscathed, was one I’d been introduced to before, but the idea that “only I will remain” struck me deep.

The context for the Litany is vast – far too vast for me to introduce here, even if I had read all of the Dune novels and properly understood it. What matters here, what struck home for me, was not the world created by Frank Herbert, but the lesson at the heart of the Litany itself.

Fear is a bad idea

The Litany, although short, to my mind is clearly divided into four sections.
The first is an injunction to the self: “I must not fear,” while the second is a really good reason why: “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”

A dead mind and total obliteration are pretty powerful negative motivators! If that’s what fear does, I sincerely want nothing to do with it!

But how not to fear? “Do not fear” seems to me rather like being told “don’t think of pink elephants.” Thankfully, the Litany doesn’t leave us hanging with the injunction and the reasons to follow it, but provides instructions to follow.

Fear must be faced

The third section gives the real heart of the Litany: the action which must be taken in order not to fear. “I will face my fear; I will permit it to pass over me and through me.”

Here, it seems clear to me that the Litany is instructing us that fear is to be treated as a separate entity. Regardless of what our experience tells us, or what psychologists discover, however much we may feel that fear is part of us, or even is who we are, in order to follow the Litany we must perceive it as something not of us, which we then face. Whether fear is or is not of us, the mental trick of displacing it to outside of us – but not projecting it onto another person or thing – allows the work of the Litany to be done.

Rather than fighting this fear which we have mentally displaced, the Litany instructs us to permit it to pass over and through us. We are to be passive in the face of fear, allowing it to flow through us, until it has gone – perhaps an appropriate analogy would be with allowing a container of water to be poured over us, and sink into the desert sands.

Fear is nothing

“And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing: Only I will remain.”

Here is the key to the Litany. Fear, which left unchecked could kill my mind and bring total obliteration, is nothing. No thing. I am real; fear is not. And it is only by allowing my fear, allowing fear to flow in me and through me, that I can come to learn for myself that fear is not real, by turning my inner eye to see its path, and seeing nothing – not even the tiniest trace.

Returning to the first line of the Litany, we see that it is perhaps not an injunction never to fear, but an injunction never to be possessed by fear, never to give it power over our thoughts, our minds, our selves.

And so endeth the first spiritual lesson from science fiction!

How do you manage fear? What spiritual lessons from science fiction (or, indeed, fantasy) have helped you through life?


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