Reuven Bar Levav

Fear Is the Spur

VTR Date: January 7, 2008

Dr. Reuven Bar-Levav explores a working theory of man.


GUEST: Dr. Reuven Bar-Levav
VTR: 1/7/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.

Now the author calls it “a working theory of man,” which is for me a wonderfully much larger construct than that of the healer alone. Still, because he is trained medically, is eminently successful as a practicing psychotherapist, my guest’s recent Simon and Schuster volume may too quickly be embraced essentially in the medical model as the reader’s guide to our insatiable quest for the formulas of individual mental health. And the book is that. But it is much more, too: a world view, a statement of the nature of human nature, and understanding of the conflicting life forces that undergird and shape societies as well as individuals…and a presumed guide to their reconciliation, if you will, on a level far more cosmic than my search, or yours, for personal well being.

Dr. Reuven Bar-Levav is a psychotherapist in private practice in Detroit, and Editor of Voices, the journal of the American Academy of Psychotherapists.

His book, intriguingly entitled Thinking In The Shadow of Feelings, presents his understanding of hidden forces that shape society because they shadow us as individuals. These are the feelings that shadow our thinking … the most centrally important; irrational fear. It dominates all other feelings, writes Dr. Bar-Levav. In its shadow we attempt to survive individually and to stand together collectively. It – fear – is the spur that dominates the affairs of men, and of mankind

Indeed, how else could it be when we are all so vulnerable … when, as he writes: “In a sense we humans are all born prematurely. Not only MacDuff was ‘From his Mother’s womb untimely ripped’ … we humans are born before we are really ready.” Vulnerable, as no other species. Dependent … and thus fearful equally of others, of their power over us, and their abandonment of us. Fear, indeed, is the spur that ever, always, shadows mankind’s thinking. How competent, then, how reasonable, how achieving can – could our thinking ever be?

Dr. Bar-Levav, of course, writes that he regards “the general human predicament as a condition which is literally curable.”

But I want to begin our program today by asking the doctor: If, indeed, our feelings are, as you write, “much more powerful than our thinking and our will” … if fear is the spur, where, indeed, could be the cure?

BAR-LEVAV: It’s interesting and typical of our expectations which are irrational that if there’s a problem, there must be cure. (Laughter) There is a cure, but there is no easy cure. A fear is a much more powerful a force in our daily affairs, as individuals, and as societies that assuming that we would find some easy solution for the problem is naïve and childlike in itself and irrational.

HEFFNER: But then why do you talk about it being curable? I wouldn’t question for a moment what you’ve just said. I question the, perhaps, need at the end to be optimistic.

BAR-LEVAV: I’ll tell you why. Because it is a miracle, a miracle filled with the sense of awe that fears that are so profound and affect individuals in such a very substantial way in their ability to conduct their affairs, that such powerful fears that Freud, for instance, really didn’t comprehend the nature of correctly enough, or at all, that they can be, not only managed, or suppressed, or in other ways coped with, but that they can be eliminated essentially.

HEFFNER: Where is it written that they can be?

BAR-LEVAV: It’s not written except in my book.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

BAR-LEVAV: (Laughter) It’s written in this book Thinking In The Shadow Of Feelings, but the question really goes “how do I know?” and “how can I show that it’s true?” And I would like to tell you that this book that I labored over for only a couple of years, two, three years, is a product of many years of looking at people and seeing things that amaze me anew every day, even now. Here come a man or woman to my office, and they’re functioning, and they have some problem and they normally come with the hope that we would return them to functioning. But as they feel safe and safe in a basic way, safe in their physiology, safe in their body, and they take a breath and they open up, fear comes up. The sob like babies.

They … when they feel safe enough they roar like lions with rage, with powerful primitive anger about things that make absolutely no sense in the real world, but which are locked in their physiology. These fears, when I see their magnitude, I am amazed myself, even now, because when I went to medical school and residency and I knew about anxiety, normal anxiety is part of our age. This is the age of anxiety, we’re all somewhat, a little bit under stress. But what we are seeing now is that because of the presence of affluence, and because we live in relative security, we have the leisure to attend to powerful forces within us and they come to the fore and they interfere with our affairs. We really are not living in an age worse than any age in the past.

HEFFNER: You mean in reality.

BAR-LEVAV: In reality. And the fact, I think, that we live better than the Kings of yesteryear, each one of us, each average human being in our good societies. In terms of what, how we eat and drink and dwell surely we live better, we hear music better than Mozart did, his own music. But we live with a sense of inner dissatisfaction. With a sense of unsteadiness in the pit of our being …


BAR-LEVAV: … in the pit of our stomach. It is a result of the fact that we are born as you so well explain in your introduction, we are born long before we are capable of understanding what we are experiencing. We live for a year and a half, a year, a year and a half having powerful experiences the residue of which leave marks in our reactions.

HEFFNER: Because we were so vulnerable to abandonment, or vulnerable to the power of those …

BAR-LEVAV: Yes. But it has to be understood in a less fancy way. We have to explain phenomenon in adult terms. But we experience them in primitive physiologic reactions of a newborn, and perhaps even before birth, but surely since we are … from the moment we are born. We live, we survive during … before birth with a sense of being safely held, and all of a sudden we live in an environment where we’re not covered, where we are not held, where we have a sense of disorientation, where we have hunger pangs, where we have unexpected reactions of life and sound and we do not know how to cope with them.

When I said “we” it is our little bodies don’t know how to cope with them. We’re all survivors; we all survive somehow, those who didn’t die. But these experiences, and many are totally out of comprehension, they are somehow registered in our body, and whatever helped us survive then, we then adopt as our typical ways of being later on. But these experiences leave marks within us, expectations, physical expectations within us, and they need to be reversed for us to take a breath, to open up. Our muscles, our muscle tension reflects those experiences. Our … the levels of various hormonal secretions reflect experiences then, and we survive later on with a variety of rationalizations, most of our thoughts, most of our actions are really ways of existing in spite of these limitations imposed upon us by our earliest life experiences long, long before there was an Oedipus in our consciousness, and long before anybody knew about penis or any envy of having it or not having it, long before such meta-psychological concepts ever came into our being, we already were survivors. Each of us, and that sense of having survived then does not come without a price.

HEFFNER: But it’s so interesting to me when you say “does not come without a price” and the price we are paying is that we live as this wonderful title indicates, in the shadow of those early, of those primitive feelings, and I come back, without the response that it is in your book, and ask where is it written … why do you make the assumption that the grim picture that you describe coming from the nature of human nature can be cured. For you, for your patients, for one for two, for thousands, for hundreds of thousands, but we’re talking about the human condition.

BAR-LEVAV: I am a scientist. I am an experimenter. That wasn’t my calling, that was my interest. I got an education to be a healer, and it’s not written anywhere, but I discovered something that I, myself, did not understand. I discovered that the reaction that we all have comes from some source, and I can see what the source is because when a person feels safe in the here and now, within the relationship with another person, it shows. It shows in facial muscles, it shows in widening of eyes, it shows in blood pressure.

HEFFNER: But you know, Dr. Bar-Levav, as you go on, and take the description of individual development …


HEFFNER: … and apply it to us living in society, you then begin to adopt, it seems to me …


HEFFNER: … before the program began I said I wondered … I was puzzled I didn’t see the name Thomas Hobbs appearing in your book when Hobbs wrote that he and fear were born as twins in the year of the Spanish Armada, with the result that he created, postulated a leviathan state in which there should be much greater control by central authority because we fearful beings, in the shadow of our feelings, are incapable of being as free and independent individuals as our democratic theory has posited, and it seems to me that I find in your comments about the First Amendment, in your comments that might be labeled conservative in the conservative/liberal political dichotomization, I think I found you saying “it isn’t too likely that we’re going to function outside of the shadow of your feelings …

BAR-LEVAV: No, no, no, no, no, no. I think that you are saying that this is the state of our current existence. But this is a highly optimistic point of view in terms of our human potential. This is the first time, I believe, that we understand that we humans can be free, we can be really free, not live in free societies, but that freedom does not come from a protection of a leviathan state, it comes from our freeing ourselves from the inner prisons in which we live.


BAR-LEVAV: And I am … if you allow me …

HEFFNER: Please.

BAR-LEVAV: … and I am a little bit, little bit ill at ease saying these things because it’s … the words I am saying sound a little bit like the clichés of general psychology. You know, there are may wise sayings, correct sayings that are on posters and what they say sounds a little bit like it, but I’m saying that this is not something that we should strive for intellectually or that we can legislate for politically, but this is something that we have to struggle to free ourselves from inside and it can be done.

HEFFNER: Suppose we looked at it the other way.

BAR-LEVAV: Which way?

HEFFNER: Your description of the nature of human nature, given the way we are born … prematurely …


HEFFNER: Your description of our fears, your description of thinking in the shadow of feelings, and then say “this is the way it is,” and we must transvalue our values, we must look at who we are and what we are, and our relations to other nations, and you seem to do that in relation to other nations, and accept a different approach to human autonomy, accept a different approach to the traditional principles of democratic rule. And why else would you … why do you here talking about free speech, why do you … in three practical suggestions, why do you …

BAR-LEVAV: At the end? This is at the end …

HEFFNER: At the end.

BAR-LEVAV: … of the chapter on the future of the West.

HEFFNER: Right. And we are talking about the future.

BAR-LEVAV: Yes. Of our free, civilized societies.

HEFFNER: Free, civilized societies, but you say “redefine the legal guarantees of the First Amendment, a wise and moderate formula,” certainly you wouldn’t advocate an unwise or immoderate …


HEFFNER: … formula, but “a wise and moderate formula will have to be devised that continues to guarantee man’s basic right to speak freely and to have a free press even when public expressions by the media are sometimes curtailed. Now what in the world does that mean?

BAR-LEVAV: That means that because of the immense power of our emotions within our … within each of us, we are likely to follow their dictates and not the dictates of reason.


BAR-LEVAV: That is the situation. Now this can be reversed and that’s the hopeful thing I spoke about earlier, but in practice we are not generally free and all our individual societal problems prove that to be true. From the difficulties we have with our marriages and our children, to problems of drug and alcoholism and crime in the streets, all of these are problems that we have not eliminated with our affluence and our otherwise free … rules of freedom that we have made for ourselves. In practice, in spite of all these good things that we have, we are still at the mercy of forces, our feelings … essentially irrational fear that move us in all directions. If we accept that for a moment and try to explain all our strange behavioral phenomenon in society many things will begin to make sense. I hear that there are three men in New York who in the last week have killed their wives, or ex-wives, something like that. Well, it doesn’t make sense, these are sensible human beings, why would they act in such a crazy way? Well, only because they are impelled by forces bigger than their reason. What I’m suggesting here is because in the society that has not yet transformed the individuals within it, and I don’t know if it can be done, ideally it should be done, it can be done theoretically, but if millions can suddenly change themselves that way, it remains … it requires tremendous work. But, in a society where that has not yet been done, if the media appeals to man’s emotions, emotions then it is less likely that they will act responsibly as free men and women might if that appeal is not made. For instance …


BAR-LEVAV: … there was some natural disaster and the reporter asked a widow or a member of the family “how do you feel about what’s happened to you?” Well, there’s only one possible answer. But the viewers who see it and hear it, they over identify with the pain, with the sadness, with the sorrow, with the fear of those who are being interviewed, and this is how public opinion is being shaped.

HEFFNER: But now, if I understand you correctly, you say “now” in a sense in the meantime, until we’ve cleared our minds, until …

BAR-LEVAV: If we can.

HEFFNER: … well, now, it’s interesting this is the second time now that you say “if we can,” I thought you were certain …

BAR-LEVAV: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … that we could.

BAR-LEVAV: It can be done on an individual basis, without doubt, and this book in chapter six suggests a very specific method of how it can be done, so it is not in generalities, but whether it can be done with the majority of any population, that I have no answer for because it requires years of hard work with each individual, so I do not know how that will be solved even in a rich society. So, but we’re talking now from a societal point of view …

HEFFNER: Right. But meanwhile you’re saying …

BAR-LEVAV: In the meantime … yes?

HEFFNER: In the meantime you want, you feel that our traditional assumptions that we are dealing with a population, every individual in it clear, thoughtful, at the disposal of his or her own thinking, that that picture is wrong, we are at the disposal of our fears, of our feelings.

BAR-LEVAV: Exactly.

HEFFNER: And so, meanwhile, until your profession …

BAR-LEVAV: No, until society, this is bigger than my profession.

HEFFNER: Okay, until society cleans its head out, clears itself?

BAR-LEVAV: Until then we must adopt public policies that recognize a basic, painful truth that we do not want to recognize.

HEFFNER: That we’re so damn irrational.

BAR-LEVAV: That man is not a rational being, that we are not rational beings. We are capable of rationality, we often act rationally, but basically we are not rational beings.

HEFFNER: You know the trouble is here, our difference is that I believe I totally agree with you except that I’m puzzled as to why you seem, if you’ll forgive me, to need to posit this notion of cure. What you really want to deal with, it seems to me, in terms of a wonderful book, a wonderful title, is the fact that we are at the disposal of our feelings and our fears and our traditional assumption, in this country in particular, that were rational.

BAR-LEVAV: Not only this country, in all Western …

HEFFNER: The Western …

BAR-LEVAV: … democracies.

HEFFNER: Why are you not then more of an admirer of the non-Western peoples who have never been fooled, if that indeed is the word, by this notion of being at the disposal of our reason, rather than of our fears.

BAR-LEVAV: Because I believe in man’s freedom. I believe in man’s potential. I believe …

HEFFNER: You mean you want to believe.

BAR-LEVAV: No, no, no. I believe in man’s potential … I’m seeing it. I really believe that man has been created in God’s image, that’s really true.

HEFFNER: Where have we gone wrong then?

BAR-LEVAV: We haven’t gone wrong, we are just not realized yet. This book Thinking In the Shadow of Feelings was first entitled Just Below The Angels. That was the original title, Simon and Schuster then told me that title will not go. It will not go because some people will think it’s a novel about love, others will think it’s a religious treatise, so we can’t sell the book that way. But why did I call it originally Just Below The Angels, because man indeed has the potential to live just below the angels.

But we grovel way below there in reality. Since that’s where we are … if Western societies, Western civilization is to save itself, we must adopt public policies that will help us maximize our chances of survival. For instance, we try to assume that we would … we can legislate our human nature, but we cannot do so. When we have to fight barbarism and we try and we live by how we would like already to be, we then become prey to their attacks upon us. I have a large discussion on the war and terrorism as you …

HEFFNER: I know.

BAR-LEVAV: … saw.

HEFFNER: You also, you also press, I’ve touched on this question, mentioned it, this matter of our relations with the world outside, you seem to be almost as … it’s almost as if Freud in his disgust with Woodrow Wilson …


HEFFNER: … and the emphasis that Wilson placed upon his Fourteen Points, was it Clemenceau who said that “God Almighty only had Ten Commandments and Wilson has Fourteen Points. Think what we’ll do with them.”

BAR-LEVAV: Well, let’s assume God was wiser. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: But you seem to think, as Freud did in his personal attack on Wilson, that his whole concept of morality in the dealings with other nations is a mistaken concept.

BAR-LEVAV: Yes, I think that’s correct. I believe that we have to try to enforce a moral order in the areas where we have the power to do so, but that we are really unable to enforce what we are unable to enforce because we don’t have the power to do so. And when you deal with barbarians, when you deal with outlaws, then to cite the Ten Commandments does not have much effect.

HEFFNER: Or the Fourteen Points.

BAR-LEVAV: Or the Fourteen Points. I do not agree with Freud on many points, but we both accept the fact that man has an inner life. I explain what is in that inner life very differently than he does. But that inner life has its own powers. We cannot legislate that we would react physically different than we do, we cannot change blood pressure by legislation and we cannot affect the behavior of others and therefore to apply moral principles in the war against terrorism, for instance, is to subject ourselves to becoming the victims of others …

HEFFNER: In terms …

BAR-LEVAV: … who do not apply those same laws.

HEFFNER: In terms of that inner life, and we have about 40 seconds left, do you, can you support our notions of one man-one vote, one nation-one vote?

BAR-LEVAV: One man-one vote, yes. One nation-one vote, probably not. That is possible only in a system in which the same moral principles would apply and power would not be a factor. But, no, I could not do that. I think we do that in the United Nations and it has proven itself not to be a workable solution, although it’s an ideal and we hold on to it, and we use the moral force of the United Nations when it applies. But to believe in the system and to subject ourselves to the World Court, for instance, even when it is stacked against us, is to believe in our own beliefs even when they are fallacies.

HEFFNER: Dr. Bar-Levav, I must say that the book with its own new title is a fascinating one below or above angels. I thank you for joining me today, and I hope we can continue this discussion at another time.

BAR-LEVAV: It’s a pleasure and so do I. So do I hope.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s theme, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $3.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; Mutual of America;. Lawrence A. Wien; and The New York Times Company Foundation.