June 18, 2008

Are We More Afraid?

Are we, as a society, becoming increasingly fearful? Sometimes it seems that way; the media bombard us hourly with the latest red alerts on everything from recalled pet products to cell phone usage; parents appear to be increasingly reluctant to leave their children with caregivers, let them play on playground equipment, or eat the same foods we grew up on...all this in addition to the new disease or threat of war du jour.

If we're more afraid than we used to be, quite possibly there's more to be afraid of...and it's accompanied all the factual (or not) data we could ever want as backup. Maybe innocence was bliss; after all, the generation of mothers that gave birth to the baby boomers weren't aware of the dangers of smoking during pregnancy, or of lead-based paint on the crib bars we chewed on as infants...and we who are now 50-plus turned out okay, sort of. Since we didn't have labels for our childhood "disorders" such as ADHD, we were labeled rambunctious, insubordinate, and "not working up to potential" instead, and spared having to take medications that are now widely prescribed, not without side effects, and therefore controversial. There were no seat belts when I was very little; perhaps the image of babies flying through windshields wasn't any more of an issue than adults flying right after them. Maybe, when we drove those less-streamlined, clunkier, gas-guzzling cars of the 50s and early 60s--the ones that left those huge carbon footprints and befouled our air supply--we drove more slowly and carefully, requiring fewer precautions for strapping in the little ones. (I don't have any stats to back this up, but I bet you could find them easily, in this era of information overload.)

But we didn't come out okay merely in spite of our parents' ignorance, and certainly not because of it; perhaps we came out okay because there were, indeed, fewer hazards. We weren't being bombarded with as much petroleum product residue, or with as many microwaves. Mutant, "Incredible Hulk"-style strains of bacteria had not yet learned to scoff at antibiotics.

That's the practical side of the factors contributing to today's fears, but there's another side to it, incited by commerce. Fear is, after all, a great money-maker, and for this, the media alone is not to blame. Fear isn't just an element of a good story that gets people buying newspapers and tuning in to the evening report; it's how we innocently motivate ourselves to come up with solutions. The creators and broadcasters of the solutions make the big bucks by playing to our desire to be comfortable, safe, secure and happy. Of course, that's Advertising 101, nothing new.

Whether we're fussing over a child's scraped knee, or the possibility of identity theft, we're not afraid of those things per se, but of what we think they mean...some dreadful story of a future that doesn't exist. The kid's scraped knee could result in an invasion of flesh-eating bacteria, and that would result in fill-in-the-worst-case-scenario (hospitalization, big medical bills, no Disney vacation this year, loss of limb, loss of life, loss of the dream of a happy family which absolutely has to include little Joey in all of his pre-scrape perfection). Identity theft could mean that someone else gets what's rightfully yours, and you'll suffer...either momentarily as you invest hours and days you'll never get back to contact your credit card companies and financial institutions, or--worst-case scenario--for the rest of your life, if someone manages to get away with charging several Learjets to your Amex, and you never qualify for a mortgage again.

So, ultimately, all fear is the fear of loss and death, whether it's the loss of a life, the loss of a dream, the loss of control and any possibility of having things go the way we want them to. And we've been well-prepared to respond to fear rather than to the reality of what's happening now. The result is to become hyper-vigilant; more fearful, because, to our way of thinking, there is everything to lose.

What if we were to relax around these fears by questioning them? What is the worst that could happen? If you don't try to micromanage every aspect of your life and your family's well-being, if something terrible happens, it's all your fault and it could have been avoided--is that true?

Few ever stop to examine this, because uninvestigated, our fearfulness appears to have greater payoffs than courage, tranquility, or rationality. The next time you find yourself reacting with hyper-vigilance out of fear, I invite you to take another look at what lies beneath.

©2008 by Carol L. Skolnick; all rights reserved.

No comments: