June 24, 2015
On Father’s Day, my family and I saw the movie Inside Out, and it served as antidote for a rough week preceding. Nothing bad happened to me personally, but once again Americans had to face an ugly scene of more lives lost, this time of middle aged and elderly black people to a young white supremacist. Once again, friends gathered round the Internet water cooler to shake their heads and talk about what could have caused this horror: racism, lack of gun control, poverty, lack of mental health care, psychotropic drugs, food additives…the list ranged from the reasonable to the ridiculous, with wildly divergent opinions on which was which.
I’m going to propose a root cause: fear. Fear is a vital emotion that keeps us safe when we’re in real danger. Ages ago, fear would prompt some ancestors to hide from a stalking lion, and other ancestors to grab a spear and kill the beast. Unfortunately in our modern world, our fight-or-flight response kicks in when we’re facing a depleted checking account. Lacking lions, we look for scapegoats to justify our anxieties and the aggressive response that follows. The “other” is always there, skulking on the outskirts and providing an easy rationale for our aggressions, which we can then cast in self-righteous terms: The “other” is scary and determined to steal our stuff and do us harm and we have every right to defend ourselves!
I know: wow. It sounds crazy and paranoid, the sort of thing Archie Bunker used to spout off so we could all have a good laugh before Mike or Gloria or Edith voiced reason. Some time in the last thirty years, however, people stopped laughing at Archie and started believing him. We stopped adequately funding the things that make a civil society civil, like education and roadways. We underfund (and undertrain) the police too, forcing them to seek revenue from nuisance fines and asset seizures from motorists. At the same time, we have spent plenty arming and armoring the police as if an insurrection were around the corner (which perhaps it is, considering how fearful people are of having their belongings or lives taken with impunity). We’ve armed ourselves too, so when the revolution comes, we can each defend our suburban fiefdoms. Fear is causing us to create a world like that portrayed in the Cohen Brother’s True Grit, where there is no safety and the only justice is that which you pay for yourself, either with gold or with blood (or your right arm).
I know: wow. That’s terrifying. The stories told in True Grit and Hunger Games, Mad Max and Game of Thrones make for thrilling entertainment, but I sure don’t want to live in those fear-molded worlds. I don’t handle fear well. Everything I’ve ever done that I’m ashamed of was motivated by fear. Should I need to call customer service to address a problem, my fear of talking to strangers on the telephone (yes, I’m phone-phobic) awakens the Bitch. Chewing out the only person who can solve your problem undermines the objective of a problem solved, yet my fear flips on the Primed for Aggression switch. Should the unfortunate customer service representative turn out to be less than one hundred percent helpful, my aggression dial sometimes goes to 11, and that can be pretty scary.
I don’t have any data to support my fear theory, just my observations of human behavior. Every miserable person I know carries around a belief that someone is trying to take something away from him or her. The “other” is coming to steal their stuff and do them harm. That’s a scary thought, and for some people, it may be a genuine possibility. But it’s simply not the case for the vast majority of Americans. We should step back and separate the reasonable fear that prompts us to have our keys out and ready in a dark parking lot from the irrational fear that everyone in that lot, particularly those whose skin color differs from our own, is out to get us. Odds are, those people are wandering aimlessly through that lot because they forgot where they parked their car. Odds are, they’re as scared as we are.
In yesterday’s post, Elaina issued a call for change. My humble suggestion for making those changes is to put fear in its place. Don’t disregard it: Fear inspires prudence at night in a parking lot, just as it once protected us from the lion. But when we wrap ourselves in our fear, it blinds us to possibility and to good. The most admirable and awe-inspiring act last week was the forgiveness publicly uttered by the victims’ families. They had the courage to embrace peace rather than vengeance, and in doing so, they thwarted Dylann Roof’s quest for a race war. If we can all follow their example more often, and choose compassion over hatred, we might yet change things for the better.
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