“You see this fear in the past, present, and future around the world.”

My student was attributing the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93 to a fear of the unknown, and certainly that’s a reasonable hypothesis. Then he goes on to remark that this fear was not limited to the people of Salem, or to the seventeenth century: “you see this fear in the past, present….” Again, he’s right about that: indeed, one might even speculate that many of those folks who made such bizarre choices at the ballot boxes last Tuesday were gripped by a fear of the unknown, the different, the alien. And social issues and politics are probably thus all around the world.

I have no quarrel with my student’s thinking so far.

But don’t you know it, he HAS to go on: there’s something irresistible about a sentence with a series of three items, isn’t there? And so he adds “and future.” Now, we may very well be safe in saying we WILL see this same fear, this horror of the strange or sudden, in the future, human nature being what it is, education having as little effect as it seems to have had and all. Using the present tense to describe the future is the confusing part. We DON’T “see” this fear in the future; we’re not there yet. We don’t see anything in the future. Everything we actually see we see in the present, and in the present we can read about the past and see something there too.

I am discounting the possibility that my student is clairvoyant, or that I am (he is, after all, addressing me when he writes “You,” no?). That would be one way to see something in the future, now. “I see a tall, dark stranger.” “I see a ship sailing.” “I see money.” “I see hard days ahead…” says the exotically-gowned-and-bangled dark woman in the shadowy tent, and we believe her (or not, depending on how much we like what she “sees”). Whether such a woman is likely to say “I see fear of the unknown in the future” I don’t know; certainly no such vision has been described by clairvoyants and fortune-tellers in the novels I’ve read and television shows I’ve seen.

I honestly don’t think my student had clairvoyance in mind. I doubt that he even meant the “future” part. I think, as I said at the outset, that he simply felt the sentence wasn’t finished with only two items in a series, and the future just plopped itself down there before he could think. And he didn’t think afterwards, either. So there I am, reading about witches and suddenly giving them visiting aliens (the space kind) and carnival “gypsies” for company. That’s the kind of strange world reading will take you to.

But you can only get to it if YOU don’t have that fear of the unknown.…

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

12 responses to ““You see this fear in the past, present, and future around the world.”

  • philosophermouseofthehedge

    Noooo – student are watching waaaay too much time warp TV shows and movies. Steam punks? Fans of last Simpson’s episode (it was a wormhole to the future where Bart’s DNA mingled with radioactive – oh, it’s a long story, but it fits this student….and oddly they did have this fear which was revealed by a robot sent back to kill Homer, but actually it was Bart….)

  • RAB

    Oh, I forgot totally about the wormhole possibility! Imagine sliding into the future only to find the same paranoia you left behind! Thanks for your wonderful help!

  • jerseechik

    Thank you for a good laugh this morning!

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    There is a house being built very near the head of my bed. The workmen
    start early, even though I stay up late. And now a little house, perfect for
    a tear-down and a McMansion, is for sale, and it is right across the
    “street” from us. We live on a little circle. You want to talk about
    fear, past, present, and future? But I guess this is different, because it is
    not about fear of the unknown; it is about dread of the known and

    • RAB

      We will have to hope that a sweet unpretentious couple see the house that IS, and love and want it, and so in the future you will not feel dread! (This is the constant worry on my street, too. Next door is a very frail elderly lady…)

  • solberg73

    “We’ve seen this type of fear throughout the past, see it daily in present times and will likely see it in the future… at least as long as there are three main temporal verb tenses.” -what he perhaps would/should have said.
    Aside: I battle daily in Hebrew with its ‘duh’ lack of complex tenses. Try saying: “Next year I will have had this car for seven years.”
    And as usual your posts always singularly inspire me. And not solely because I agree with you on the infantile ‘spite’ voters in the US lately. Hmm probably in the future also.

    • RAB

      Hi, Solberg 73. Yes, your revision would have saved this student, and is probably what he meant (if he in fact did mean something–which is a hope but not a certainty).
      I began to really understand the impact of language when I was told that some languages (could Vietnamese be one? That was the claim, anyway) have no future tense. The translation issues must be terrible. And do the verb forms shape perception as well as utterance, that is the question.
      And yes, if the spite voters and the willfully ignorant voters continue to outnumber the aware and caring voters, I will definitely feel fear in the future, just as I now fear FOR the future!

  • Susan P

    Nice to see you even if fear is involved.

  • cluelessgirl92

    This made laugh. >_< When I used to write essays in high school for my English class, I was guilty of doing this exact same thing. A sentence just didn't feel complete until I added that third item! I still do it sometimes, but at least I'm not being being graded now.

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