“What’s in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.” That’s what’s in Room 101, according to the book that mentions it, the book that introduces the idea of Room 101. But what’s the worst thing in the world? Well, of course, this individual thing differs from person to person. In the book which describes Room 101, the worst thing for the person in question is rats. The man in question is terrified of rats, and so he’s locked up in a room with them. It’s the worst thing for him. He cannot stand it.
I personally do not fear rats that much. In college, I lived in Washington, D.C., where rats were prevalent. Highly prevalent. Sometimes, at night, they would crisscross in front of the benches outside our dorm, the place where we college students all congregated to smoke cigarettes. The rats were not scary, though some of the larger, fatter, more grotesque ones; okay, those were a little scary. But the phrase “They’re more afraid of you that you are of them” always went through my head. And indeed, the rats did seem more afraid of us than we were of them. They were crisscrossing and fleeing and hiding. We, on the other hand, were standing boldly in the moonlight, smoking clove cigarettes and talking, probably, about Baudelaire and Post-Structuralism and who slept with who the night before.
So the worst thing in the world would not be rats.
“They’re more afraid of you than you are of them” is what my mother always told me about bees, which I was deathly afraid of as a child. Still, I eventually convinced myself that she was right; bees were scaredy-cats. This worked well until a day on the playground when I bent down to tie my shoe, not seeing the bee perched on top of my sneaker. Then I learned that bees were not more scared of me. The bee stung me and it hurt, it hurt like a motherfucker, and the bee was not scared of me. When bees sting you, they die, and the bee was so unscared of me that it was willing to die to defend what it interpreted as being an incursion on its territory.
My mother also told me that the reason that bees flew so near to my head was because they thought that my hair was a flower. She meant this as a way to buck up my confidence as a child (I lacked confidence), by praising my bright blond hair in a roundabout kind of way. But the thing about confusing my hair for a flower turned out likewise to be not true, as bees see on an entirely different color-spectrum than we do, and also are not idiots, at least not where flowers are concerned, and so did not confuse my hair with a flower. They just accidentally fly near a lot of people’s heads, is what bees do.
Based on these two stories, I would like to draw a picture of my mother as being a lying bitch, just for the hell of it, but actually I like my mother. She is a nice woman; just a little ill-informed about bee biology.
Anyway, still, the worst thing in the world would not be bees.
I think maybe for me the worst thing in the world would be ticks. I used to play in my father’s backyard in the country, and as my father was an alcoholic, the backyard was completely wild and untended and ungroomed and covered in weeds, and one day I came home and it was discovered that I had fourteen ticks on my head. Fourteen. The horrible thing about ticks is that they are disgusting on their own, and they attach themselves to your head and drink your blood, but you can’t just pull them off. If you just pull them off, then their jaws just detach from their bodies. They die, of course, but their jaws remain embedded in your skin and you can catch diseases that way. So instead you have to burn them off with matches. You burn them, they flinch, they release their grip, and then you can pull them off without their jaws detaching. This of course means putting burning matches next to your skull, poking burning matches into your hair. It is not very fun. After this I stopped playing in the yard for a while.
But the worst part was that there weren’t fourteen. There were fifteen. I found the last tick a week later, while sitting in math class in middle school. I reached up to adjust my hair, and there it was, evilly hidden behind my ear. It was bloated and gorged with my blood. I yanked it off, in absolute defiance of the “matches” rule, and threw it on the floor and stomped it under my sneaker, where it left a round spot of blood. My blood. It was one of the worst things to ever happen to me, up until that point.
Still, then again, the worst thing in the world wouldn’t be ticks.
I have tried to think of other potential worst things:
- Something gross happening to my eyes, like gouging or something.
- Something with fire.
- Being stuck alone in a room with someone who patiently and reasonably explains to me why my writing is terrible.
None of those things are the worst thing in the world, though.
The worst thing in the world, after all, it turns out, is fear. Fear is the thing behind the thing. Fear is what makes ticks, eye gouging, bees, etc. seem so terrible.
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” This is a saying — like “They’re more afraid of you than you are of them” — this is a saying that has gained resonance in my mind. At first a cliché, then it gains weight and resonance. What was FDR thinking when he said it? That doesn’t matter now. It’s true. We have nothing to fear but fear itself. But how do we unfear fear?
Listen: I am getting older now. Bad things have happened to me; moments where I thought I would die. These things will happen to you as well. Listen to me. We get older, and we realize that everything will be taken from us. That person that you love? They will be taken from you someday, if not by a breakup, then by death. Everything will be lost to us.
Listen: Fear will strike you where you are weakest. Fear is a gangster, a murderer. Fear will find your weak point, and fear will strike at your weak point. Where is your weak point? Fear will find it and strike there. If in the eyes, then fear will strike in the eyes. If in the mouth, then in the mouth. If in the groin, then in the groin. Fear will make it happen. These things that I am telling you are true.
What’s in Room 101 is fear. The worst thing of all. We will go there someday. Or we can unbuild it, but how do we unbuild Room 101, for it was a thing that we built. We built it together. It was a thing that we built, brick by brick. We made this room together; we did, and now it stands forever, in appalling judgment of us. We built it together, just you and me.
image – U.S. National Archives