Trying to survive in Planet Fear

A few days ago the latest Consumer Reports arrived along with the AARP Bulletin, the latter something we’ve never subscribed to but seem destined to receive until we die.

CR’s cover featured a half-plastered doctor—a model I hope—with a two-day beard, a crumpled white smock and a jumbo martini in one hand, along with the headline “What You Don’t Know About Your Doctor Could Hurt You.” Inside, the article covers botched surgeries, substance abuse, sexual misconduct and other horrors that might prompt you to avoid doctors and hospitals unless you happen to fall unconscious while walking by an emergency room. The issue had other stories to my mind more relevant to consumers, such as the latest on electric cars and the best washing machines, but the editors instead picked fear as their lead.

Compared to the AARP Bulletin though, CR is a gusher of optimism. The latest Bulletin warns us about dangers in the home, scam alerts, a nursing home murder, ways to prepare for a disaster, deadly viruses, dangerous products (accompanied by an illustration of an exploding kitchen blender), and gangs targeting older Americans.

Excuse me while I fix myself a one-liter martini like the one the doctor on the CR cover had on his left hand.

Along with resentments, fear has to be the oldest and most insidious of emotions. At a talk before the local Unitarian fellowship, Rev. Tom Rosiello pointed out that “Do not be afraid!” is among the most common injunctions in the Bible. One blogger actually counted the number of times it comes up and claimed it’s close to three hundred and sixty-five times, enough for a daily innoculation against fear. Indeed, throughout history most religions have dealt with the puzzle of fear by suggesting we just put our fate in the hands of Someone Upstairs.

Russell T. Gourdine’ painting “Life: Fear”. He explains:
“I chose to paint fear… because fear is something that
 everyone experiences in life. This painting shows a woman
who is fearful of her past.” Whoa!

During the current presidential primary season, fear of everything and everyone—immigrants, transgender people lurking in bathroom stalls, Mexicans, blacks, Muslims, terrorists, economic insecurity and criminals, to name just a few—seems to have replaced rational discourse, making it look as if the clowns have hijacked the circus parade.

Yet raw fear, much like resentments, accomplishes little. The two sour daily life by distorting it, by focusing our attention on what has happened and what might happen—both of them scenarios largely out of our control and often irrational—and away from what is actually occurring in front of us.

Fear can’t be just wished away. It’s in our spines and a healthy dose of it is essential for survival. Rational fear could be called prudence, common sense, caution, and it can save us from getting run down when we cross the street or sticking a wet finger in an electrical socket. Stew and I make a round of the house and make sure all the doors and windows are locked before checking out for the night.

Resentments, or looking back, are intrinsically human too. You inescapably look back in your life’s experiences, yesterday or years ago, to help you understand and guide your behavior today. If you’re lucky such examination will add a measure of balance or even happiness to your life. I think that is what psychotherapy is supposed to do, though if Woody Allen is any indication progress is often imperceptible.

In some cases—most notably my own, though regrettably I realized it relatively late in life—retrospection frequently sours into resentments and becomes seriously destructive, because, just as with irrational fears, grudges and resentments distort your perspective of the now. Would that someone could invent a machine to edit the past, one that could expunge the nasty episodes and people from one’s previous existence.

The next best solution might be to emulate the pope and periodically issue a “plenary indulgence” that absolves all the assholes in our lives so we can move on and deal with what’s in front of us today. Probably that’s not exactly how the pope would describe it, nor do rank-and-filers like me have the pope’s supposedly divine touch of global absolution. But I find it a surprisingly refreshing exercise, like taking a shower and putting on clean clothes, even if there are a few die-hard assholes I can’t seem to get on my indulgence list.

But if resentments tend to be a private matter, nowadays fear is universal. After a dinner party the other day friends talked about their travel plans. Istanbul? But is it safe? The Netherlands? Isn’t that in Europe, pretty close to Brussels and Paris, where Islamic terrorists roam? Egypt? Are you crazy? The whole place is packed with crazy Muslims! Living in Mexico? Aren’t you afraid of the narco-bandidos? Or for that matter, the U.S., where some mass shooting takes places almost daily, in the streets, a military base(!), a movie house or a black church?

As the conversation meandered through all these minefields of risks and fears I realized that if we let them govern our lives—not to mention our travel plans—life could at best become only marginally safer but also limited and limiting, borderline intolerable.

The gun-owning mania in the U.S. is fueled by fear, a veritable mass hysteria. Millions of Americans own guns, sleep by them or carry them, concealed or ostentatiously, whether going to the car wash or the grocery store. Many of them interviewed on TV say they want “protection” and that guns provide a feeling of “empowerment,” even though letting fear and envisioning anyone you meet on the street as a potential threat is an oxymoronic take on personal empowerment.

How to deal with fears and resentments, to determine which are rational and productive—as opposed to Looneyville and self-destructive—is a question to which I’ve found no definitive answer. The closest I’ve come is to try living in the present and to constantly challenge my own perspectives and decisions. To give up on travel for fear of meeting people different from us seems illogical—isn’t that why we travel?—though cancelling that long-postponed archeological tour of Damascus until further notice probably is a good move. But wholesale surrender to fear is the ultimate defeat of reason.

Though I initially dismissed Donald Trump’s agenda as lunatic—a sort of stream-of-consciousness, spur-of-the-moment babbling—I’ve gradually come to appreciate the succor his pitch offers to frustrated white voters whose fortunes continue to continue to decline as the U.S. economy becomes more polarized, and dreams of upward mobility for themselves and their children turn into a mirage. These folks are angry and ready to blame anything and anyone, from free-trade treaties to Mexican rapists and Trump is their man.

But even when you agree that their gripes are legitimate, their solutions are not. Resentments, xenophobia and other types of bigotry, plus fear, do not add up to a constructive economic policy. What is scariest of all—and I think that’s a legitimate fear—is that given the gotcha politics that paralizes Congress today there may be no plausible solutions for the foreseeable future to what ails the country and the economy.

That’s really scary.


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