Americans have become a fearful lot. And I really do mean scaredy-cats, a bunch whimpering, simpering, cowardly lions afraid of everything from chocolate milk to clowns, from fake eyelashes (it’s a thing) to 11 year-old playground bullies.
I’m not sure how this happened, but fear has become a pervasive element in our culture. It’s virtually everywhere, replacing optimism and confidence in the same way that “feeling” has replaced “thinking.”
The lawyers have a lot to do with that, because we have millions of them. And because we have millions of them competing to salve our “feelings” with remedies in cash settlements, we have become the most litigious society in the history of the world.
We’ve done that without pausing to consider that litigation may be – in many, many cases — more of a problem than a solution. So a lot of people are just afraid of being sued, about something, sometime, by someone, which is probably legitimate because anyone can sue anybody, at any time, for any thing.
And they often do.
Maybe the fear culture is somehow based in the knowledge – mostly not talked about — like the bad uncle with prison tats who shows up drunk at Christmas – that we are essentially bankrupt as a nation, running on fumes and easy credit to rack up bills that no one alive, apparently, has any intention of ever paying off, so that the bill for the Great Baby-Boomer Dine and Dash will someday land on our grandchildren like a cartoon safe falling out of the sky.
Anyway, here’s a brief survey of things Americans, by their own admission, were scared of last week: romaine lettuce, Facebook, the Dow Jones Average, cheerleading injuries, chemtrails, aliens (galactic or planetary), drones, staying in Syria, leaving Syria, staying in Afghanistan, leaving Afghanistan, Mad Cow disease, witchcraft in elementary schools, Kelly-Anne Conway, inflation, deflation, Amazon’s Alexa telling children to murder their foster parents, drought, planetary warming, planetary cooling, credit-card debt, flooding, tornados, volcanoes, tick-borne diseases, Trump, MAGA hats, Pelosi, Rand Paul, people with guns, people banning guns, North Korean EMP bombs, robot surgeons, opioids, China, Mueller, ISIS, Russia, ANTIFA, cancer, coffee, roundabouts, heart disease, walls and slats, people from Portland, people from Honduras, angry deer, white supremacists, people from California, self-driving cars, bears, Boy Scout jamborees, forest fires, football players, Elon Musk, Vladimir Putin, and glitter.
Reading forensically, it appears that at least some Americans are afraid of all these things at the same time, every day. Other citizens have more concentrated fears, such as the folks who, in one California city, called 911 over 27,000 times – to complain about gas-powered leaf blowers.
Which is sad because there was a whole lot more Scary Stuff crammed into the big bag of potential night-terrors, including some horror stories about radioactive pigs and wolves roaming around Europe — but for our purposes what happens in Ukraine stays in Ukraine.
It’s tempting to say some of that fear is really just anger, but fear works because those emotions share the same mother, which is a lack of control over other people, circumstances, or things.
A lot of this contemporary fear-mongering, and the subsequent fear-based living and decision-making, is driven by media saturation, which is a for-profit business, after all. And fear-widgets sell, so editorial decisions are made easy when the choice falls between a story about a kid raising money for his pet turtle with a broken beak, or one about a factory robot that went inexplicably rogue and killed some hapless fellow on the assembly line.
Television editors will, on occasion, squeeze a feel-good piece in between the terrors, a kind of synthetic filler — like a slice of American cheese in a bad ham sandwich — but generally book-end a broadcast with more breaking news meant to terrify us in various ways even though, in our typically humble and generally mundane lives, we are virtually powerless to do anything at all about the Great Big Fears Consuming the World.
So the fear and anxiety stories just get pumped into our bubbles every day with precious few ways to vent them off, unless you are into goat-yoga, or just prefer to hide in mom’s basement blazing away on some Humboldt Fatso and listening to Tony Robbins tapes on an endless loop.
Which, when you think about it, is kind of a strange way to live.
Not that fear is ALL bad. Gavin de Becker, author of The Gift of Fear, writes convincingly that fear is also an evolutionary advantage, giving us a kind of genetic forewarning of dangerous people, places, or things. Which would be more true if we weren’t being conditioned to believe that virtually everything around us is scary, or potentially scary, or that we are all living on the precipice of some cultural, political, and ecological cataclysm.
There are people among us who think they have all the answers. They don’t. Blowhards and know-it-alls are really just people overcome by fright who have morphed into frenzied tent-revivalists, and who would love to baptize you in the church of their own nightmares.
So maybe in this holiday season, when very powerful forces at work in our culture would like to scare you into thinking the same way they do, we can all just turn off the big global horror show and take a long, overdue break from constantly crying wolf.