One the same day I learned of Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy, I got an e-mail from my daughter’s high school stating that the school had been placed in “lockdown”, whatever the hell that means, because “a man entered the front office area and placed a black book bag on a bench and left the building without notifying the office staff”. The County Sheriff’s bomb disposal unit was promptly dispatched to the school. It’s not clear whether the FBI, ATF, CIA or any other of the alphabet soup of federal agencies was informed. The bag, after all, was black—the known preference of bag color for would be assassins and terrorists. And it didn’t even have any pink or purple or red or yellow decorative ribbons portraying its owner’s identification with various anti-cancer/support the troops/female empowerment, etc., causes. The bag very obviously did not belong to any of the students at my daughter’s upscale suburban high school, or so it seemed. Alas, the bomb unit X-rayed the bag (wouldn’t a clever bomber devise a bomb to explode upon X-ray?) and found it contained—gasp!—books and school supplies. We are a skittish bunch, aren’t we?
That news came after I learned that Angelina Jolie emasculated herself by having both of her breasts removed on the possibility that they might one day turn cancerous. And yes, “emasculate” is the proper word to describe what Jolie did to herself—in addition to meaning “castration”, emasculate also means “to deprive of strength or vigor; weaken” according to The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition. Whatever else you might think about Ms. Jolie, it can’t be disputed that she derives great power from her physical attributes, including her breasts. She is a remarkably beautiful woman whose fame and fortune depends on her beauty. That’s what being a movie star is about. Without her breasts, even with life-like replacement prosthetics, she is less so, particularly as her audience now knows by her admission that what they will henceforth see on the screen will not be real. While it has been proved that men are about as discriminating as turkeys when it comes to distinguishing the real from the fake in women (in the wild, gobblers will often attempt to mount a hen decoy), very few are attracted in the same way when they know a woman’s breasts to be fake. (But all the prosthetically-enhanced women needn’t worry. When a roll in the hay is at stake, men would never admit to feeling differently about a woman who has undergone surgical enhancement if doing so would impair their chances.)
Perhaps Jolie’s emasculation came with her admission instead of the surgery. There are undoubtedly a great many Hollywood actresses whose physical features have been surgically enhanced in some manner or another. Very few ever admit to the procedures. Jolie weakened herself by admitting that what people would henceforth see of her breasts, attributes comprising a not insubstantial portion of her physical attractiveness, would not be real. Viewed in that light, she was immensely courageous in her admission. And frankly, all things considered, might be even more attractive now. Women are generally such frauds in their physical appearance. They color their hair. They slather their faces and eyes with greasy paint they call makeup. They pad their bras and wear shoes making them appear three and four inches, or more, taller than they really are. They wear suits with padded shoulders to enhance a facade of power. The average woman leaving for work in the morning is nothing more than a well-constructed lie. But we all now know Angelina Jolie has fake breasts, because she told us so. What a breath of fresh air. I can see why Billy Bob Thornton was attracted to her. What I can’t see is why she was attracted to him. Maybe it had something to do with his brilliant performance in Sling Blade. The guy really is an artistic genius. It’s easy to see what she sees in Brad Pitt, and he in her, but less interestingly so.
But the reason for Ms. Jolie having undergone a double mastectomy is troubling, to say the least. It originates from the same impulsive fear that drove my daughter’s school to imagine the worst when a book bag was left unattended at the school. Fear is an oppressive taskmaster. It is the antithesis of freedom. Kris Kristofferson had it exactly correct when he observed that freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, and we have now become so rich and so comfortable that every single day we have everything to lose, or so we imagine. We can no longer be free. At least not so long as we continue wallow in materialism; at least not so long as we continue to focus our love on things that can’t be loved without the fear of losing.
The fear of getting cancer and dying early drove Jolie to disfigure herself. The fear of another Boston Marathon or Sandy Hook Elementary makes every otherwise benign black bag suspect, and especially so in the vicinity of a school. The fear of another 9/11 drove America to irreparably disfigure its Constitution, in the process losing its only value worth protecting, with no hope of prosthetic enhancement to ameliorate the effects. The fear of rather mild economic pain drove the nationalization of vast swaths of the American economy, and the profound debasement of the currency.
What happens if Jolie dies early anyway? What if she develops a complication from the surgeries and dies or is catastrophically impaired for life?
Is it possible to ever feel safe, to ever know peace, if every unattended bag grips the collective soul with fear?
What becomes of the timeless covenant between a government and its people, forged and refined in the crucible of 10,000 years of civilization and embodied in the US Constitution, when its principles are willingly abandoned on the pain of an attack, not on the Constitution, but on a couple of buildings and some unfortunate people, by a few fanatics?
Where does a dollar go to gets its reputation back, after having been leveraged to the hilt as the world’s medium of exchange and store of value in a vain effort to forestall some measure of economic pain?
Actions undertaken to prevent the pain of loss that is feared often do the exact opposite, operating to cause the very loss they are intended to prevent.
I took an informal poll after the Jolie news came out of three middle-aged women, i.e., women who had already borne all the children they wished to bear. All three said they would have done what Jolie did. It was a bit shocking to me. Did these women wake up every day fearing death could overtake them at any moment? This is no sort of way to live; it is closer to death—the thing they most fear—than life.
The fear of death is not a rational fear. Fear is a defense mechanism against the possibility of suffering pain. Death is a certainty. It is the absence of pain. Life is painful. Death is not. There should be no reason to fear death, except that our uniquely capable (among living creatures of which we are aware) higher order reasoning has discovered that we exist and therefore we must one day cease to exist. The reasoning mind employs its ability to see through layers of space and time to view its ultimate destiny, and twists and contorts the impulse to fear, which we all have as a necessary accoutrement to the survival impulse, into an irrational fear of death. Of course we must one day die, but there is no reason to fear it in the here and now, every moment of our lives. The fear of death, though prompted by our capacity for higher order reasoning, is irrational.
It seems that what is really sought through the obsession to eliminate the risk of death is the continuation of denial. No one wants to acknowledge their own mortality, and be thereby forced to abandon their own irrational fears. Keeping a close hold on irrational fears is infantile and Romantic (in the post-feudal European sense of the notion), an indulgence only available to those living in relative ease and comfort, who don’t regularly face existential struggles in their day-to-day lives.
I learned not to fear death through my son’s experiences struggling to survive leukemia and two bone marrow transplants. I knew his struggle might, and with the second transplant, most likely would, be in vain. I learned not to focus my love on the continuation of his material being. St. Augustine taught me how and why, from On Free Choice of the Will:
All wicked people, just like good people, desire to live without fear. The difference is that the good, in desiring this, turn their love away from things that cannot be possessed without the fear of losing them. The wicked, on the other hand, try to get rid of anything that prevents them from enjoying such things securely. Thus they lead a wicked and criminal life, which would better be called death.
Fear is an oppressive master. Freedom, the very premise upon which America is founded, and the loftiest aspiration one can have for life, can only come through refusing to love things which can’t be enjoyed without the fear of losing. When all one’s treasures are eternal, there is nothing that can be lost. There is nothing to fear. There is freedom, at last.