Most of my preteen years were lived in nagging fear. I was secure in a loving, two-parent home. We had plenty to eat. I was not bullied. I was not sick. I had no obvious reason to be afraid, but the reality of my situation was lost in worry about terrible things that might happen.
The world situation I vaguely understood threatened that an H-bomb could fall on my house at any time. Even scarier was the fear that the world would suddenly come to an end “just like it says in the book of Revelation.” I really hated the evenings when a full moon took on a reddish tint — did that mean the moon was turning to blood?
By college years my religious faith was exposed to a wider world than the hellfire evangelists who stoked my fears. I learned that The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series of novels offered only one possible way to understand that mysterious book at the end of the New Testament. As I was offered new and far more graceful ways to understand my faith, I joined ranks with those who consider that the attempt to frighten people into loving God is a kind of spiritual abuse. I met new people who taught and modeled for me better ways to live and believe and not be so afraid.
In everyday life my fears lessened as well. We Americans were relieved that the Red Scare of the ’50s and the Cold War threat of nuclear devastation weakened as history played itself out. America was one of only two world superpowers; when the USSR came apart, we were the only one.
However, any calm was relatively short lived because massive cultural upheavals began in the ’60s and have never stopped.
From the perspective of those who welcomed change, ideas and behaviors that had been too long ignored and made taboo for discussion were now in the open. For those who were not welcoming of the changes, the pushback began. The increasingly hostile arguments and simplistic slogans about abortion, race, women’s and gay rights, divorce, and the inerrancy of the Bible were previews of the angry divisiveness that plagues us today. The seeds for today’s culture wars were planted and have thrived in an environment that increasingly plays on the stoking of fear and anger.
Fear craves security. It demands certainty, simple black and white reality, and predictability. Times of such rapid social change as we live in easily undermine a sense of security. If unchallenged, fear feeds on itself and imagines worse and worse outcomes. Anger and suspicion are not far behind. None of us is exempt, but some of us are far more attuned to fears than are others.
Let us be reminded that being afraid is not part of our national DNA.
We are the land of the free and home of the brave. Those who play on our fears do us a great injustice. The colonists who crossed the ocean in tiny boats, the patriots who rebelled against powerful England, the pioneers who moved west, all had mixed reasons for what they did; fear of new people, places, and challenges was not high on the list of their motives.
Dangers were real — they still are — but great leaders and everyday citizens need not behave as if disaster awaits around every corner and that the only safety lies in huddling ever closer to one’s own kind while yearning for an idealized past of greatness.
Life at its best has times when it becomes pretty chaotic. This year has been exceptional in the number of crises that have consumed our energy. Perhaps there is little wonder when political speeches cloak fear in belligerence and disguise it as patriotism. We have been warned that if “the other guy” is elected we can anticipate only a dark future that resembles a toxic blend of Bladerunner, Planet of the Apes and The Hunger Games. We can do better. We must do better.
What price will we pay to feel more secure? It is impossible to remove all threats and risk, but paralyzing and destructive fear needs to be starved of its nourishment. A couple of suggestions come to mind immediately.
First of all, there is a balance to strike between being an informed and responsible citizen and being a news junky. Spending hours with the talking heads of either CNN or Fox will only raise the sense of threat. The same goes for social media. It is terribly seductive to believe that one’s post or tweet will magically enlighten the mind of friend and stranger alike. How does that work in reality?
In doing conflict management the reminder is that not everything is worth an all-out fight. Correspondingly, not every perceived threat to one’s security deserves the full engagement of fear. Living under constant alert for danger is exhausting and unhealthy. Choosing to sort real threat from “what if” must be done over and over, but the alternative is to live daily with increasing levels of suspicion and hostility.
Perhaps the most helpful way to feel more secure and less threatened is to gently push on the walls of one’s comfort zone and explore a bigger world full of wonder and diversity.
COVID has made it harder than ever to meet new people and to socialize in settings where not everyone is alike. But, with effort, it can still be done. With friends of different skin color or social status or political party, it is easier to see different viewpoints and to become a bit less self-important.
Though my endorsement is sadly tacked onto these reflections, I once again offer One Community United as an excellent source for these varied relationships. There is much to gain in embracing the motto “Let’s Talk”.