Attorney Steve Grow
September 5, 2014
It is hardly surprising that we are fearful. Right from birth, we live among fearful people, who train us by teaching and example that we must be afraid also. We quickly learn to consider fear as not only unavoidable, but even as necessary for an OK life. It is the only life we have known. We practice being afraid, scaring ourselves and each other, and reassuring ourselves and each other that it necessary and normal to be afraid. We are so accustomed to fear—that we are afraid not to be afraid. For all too many of us it is our primary motivation and motivator, whether we realize it or not.
The important thing, we seem to think, is to fear the right people or things to the right extent and in the right way at the right times and for the right reasons. Whatever we fear, we tend to regard as an “enemy”. We then tend to associate most comfortably with people who have the same enemies we do—“the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” (Of course, if unbeknownst to myself I am my own worst enemy, then many of these friends will also turn out to have dual natures, and be both friends and enemies, to themselves and to me.) We may then come to regard as enemies people who are not in this camp—“anyone who is not an enemy of my enemy is, well, another enemy.” This “enemy” may be a person or anything else. For example, some regard a disease or a pain or their stress or anxiety (or whatever or whoever they consider to be the source of it) as their chief adversary, and others regard a certain opinion or reality (or imagined reality) as the chief problem, and thus as the chief enemy.
Much of our interaction in all areas (family, business, politics, religion, international relations) consists in our earnestly advising each other about what to fear most—and straightening out others who fear other things more or who don’t fear what we fear or who don’t fear what we fear as much as we do. Many such conversations, whether in private or in front of others (including in the media or from the pulpit), go something like this:
Person #1: “What, you are afraid X? You are really mixed up!!! You should be a lot more afraid of Y!!!
Person #2: “What, you are afraid Y? You are really mixed up!!! You should be a lot more afraid of X!!!
Person #3: “What, you are afraid of X or Y? You are both crazy!!!! You should fear Z a whole lot more!!!!
Person #4: “What, you aren’t afraid of Z? You are nuts. It’s the most dangerous thing around, and you should be terrified of it?
Person #5: “I just learned that Q is happening. This is the most serious crisis ever!!! I’m scared to death about this and you should be too.” Etc., Etc., Etc.
Very often the word “crisis” is a code word identifying something someone is afraid of and wants you to be afraid of, too. Many of us just wallow in one crisis after another (and keep glued to news or information sources to find out the latest on each crisis we have been following, and to discover the new crisis of the day). Almost no one entangled in this way ever comes up for air and wonders if there might be something wrong with always being in crisis mode. Moreover, the airways are filled with people arguing about exactly how to define the crisis, and offering themselves or someone or something they recommend as the solution to the crisis—various parties argue fiercely about that. Many of us are habitués of the Mighty Mouse Syndrome. We love a crisis so that either we (or a hero we admire and identify with) can come to save the day. Mighty Mouse would be out of a job in a world without crises.
Moreover, there is a fallacy that we fall into here. It is not necessarily true (in fact in my experience it is VERY rarely true) that a person who can spot and define a problem persuasively is actually equipped to help solve the problem effectively and wisely. Tragically, the prospective Mighty Mice (and their admirers) seldom realize this. If there is a problem, the person who brought it to your attention may be very ill-equipped to solve it, and may be seeing it in a distorted or partial way, rather than wisely—the more fear-driven the person is, the more certain this is to be the case, in my experience. Karl Marx, for example, accurately described people’s inner alienation from their true selves in his early writing—but the solutions he proposed were disastrous for many who tried to implement them at a government level.
Do note that the fearful environment surrounds us and works in motivating us about more mundane things than world political events. The essence of marketing an underarm deodorant, for example, is to first create fear in the target customer that he or she might smell bad or not smell good enough. Then propose the deodorant as the solution to the problem. With slight variations, everything from Twinkies to good or bad political ideas or candidates to the need to pray to God or go to church on Sunday or make large donations to a church (as sort of a bribe to God), are marketed this way. So fear is implicit in much marketing that we are bombarded with in our daily lives. And many marketers wouldn’t know what to do unless they could help keep us stirred up with fear. This certainly contributes to our assuming that being in fear is normal and OK.
But do notice!!!! There is one thing on which almost everyone agrees on completely: We must all be scared to death of something or someone—we need one or more “enemies” (even if one of them is ourselves). There is a clear, unquestioned and almost universal consensus about that—even when we are fighting tooth and nail about everything else. Moreover, an unspoken premise in the above discussion and most interaction is this: What you should really be terrified of is the possibility that you aren’t afraid of something you should be afraid of, or that your fear is misplaced—that you are not fearing the right things. (In short, you should be terrified if you aren’t afraid? What a wonderfully tricky, double-double-bind trap that would be!!)
Being in the grip of fear, and motivated by it, what do we do? One thing we often do is try to fight fear with fear, in various ways. If something or someone does something that scares us, we may (1) try to recruit others to fear the same thing and thus become our allies and companions in fear, or (2) in direct or displaced retaliation, try to really scare the socks off the person that has frightened us (or an innocent bystander if we are too fearful to deal with the feared person or object directly itself). By drawing others into our fear, we feel less uncomfortable that we are afraid since obviously others must agree that what has frightened us also frightens them—we must be normal and OK after all. By retaliating and trying to scare whoever frightened us, we are hoping to deter them from doing it again—making them as, or more, afraid of us than we are of them. That also comforts us—if we can get them to cringe before us, perhaps we don’t have to cringe before them. And we have pained them with fear as they pained us with fear. But whatever we do along these lines, we are still really cringing before our own fears—regardless of their real or apparent outer (or inner) inducement. Both bullies and wimps are fear driven at their cores. In fact all bullies are wimps, and all wimps are bullies.
All too many people have no hope of ever living without fear. What Henry David Thoreau said in the 1830s or 1840s has always been true of people and societies (with few and fleeting exceptions) and it is still true: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” (By men, he plainly meant mankind, including women and children of both genders.) Of course, quite often that desperation erupts in very unquiet and obviously destructive and violent ways—but even while it festers quietly and unexpressed, it devastates our own souls as surely and catastrophically as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima or the incendiary bombs that ignited the fire storms in Tokyo and Dresden and other cities during WWII. It turns us into terror-driven, surprisingly volatile time bombs, ever ready to erupt into total war, whether a cold war or a hot war, whether with ourselves or with just one other person or within a family, or with the whole world as in a World War.
But despite the fact that almost everyone believes that we must be scared to death about something and accepts that as common ground, it is just not true!!! It is in fact a most dreadful mistake, indeed!!!! Notice how I said “dreadful” mistake—yet I really don’t want to make you afraid of considering the matter, nor do I wish to terrorize you into considering that it may be a mistake, or terrorize you into changing or pretending to change. Nor do I want to motivate you with fear or shock in any way. Yet the fact that the expression is so natural and easy and perhaps impactful is a symptom of how deeply living in fear and dread is woven into the way we live, the way we think (both to ourselves and out loud), the way we observe what passes through our imagination and memories, as well as the way we communicate. I noticed my expression only after I had written it down, and almost changed it--but rather thought it better to let my own expression illustrate how deeply rooted fearfulness is—not only in you, but also in my own habits of thought, expression and communication.
You may well ask at this point: What’s really so wrong about this? Well, actually, quite a lot! I will go into some of the deeper reasons why that is so in subsequent articles. But for present purposes, I would point out that some of the some the greatest leaders America and the world have seen took a different path. Rather than themselves being entangled in fear and panic (and rather than playing on and multiplying our fears), such leaders first sought to disentangle us from fear--so that, less blinded by fear, we can face and deal with what needs to be faced and resolved.
When Franklin Roosevelt assumed the Presidency in 1933, America and the World were in a terrible mess. In America, there was already approximately 33% (and rising) unemployment, businesses were closing their doors or cutting back every day, and the banking system was in a critical state. The world economy was in a state of collapse.
In these grim circumstances, consider what Franklin Roosevelt chose to say as his very first words to the American people as President-immediately after he took the oath of office:
President Hoover, Mr. Chief Justice, my friends:
This is a day of national consecration. And I am certain that on this day my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency, I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our people impels.
This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure, as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. [Property v]alues have shrunk to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; and the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone. More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.
Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply.
The speech continued—ending up being somewhat under 2000 words. I quoted at length in part to remind readers in some detail just what severe difficulties the American people were experiencing at the time.
Jean Edward Smith’s exceptional 2007 biography, entitled simply FDR (which I highly recommend) provides some background insights into this president.
After the lusterless Warren G. Harding, the dour Coolidge, and the stuffy Herbert Hoover, FDR seemed like a breath of fresh air in the White House. His self-assurance was exactly what the country needed. With the possible exception of Ronald Reagan (who voted for FDR four times), no president has been more serene in the conviction that whatever happened, everything would turn out all right. “Take a method and try it,” he once said. “If it fails, admit it and try another. But above all try something.” (FDR, Preface, pp xi and xii.)
What lay at the root of this indispensable bouyancy? The Smith biography makes that quite clear as well, in harkening back to FDR’s childhood:
The Roosevelts were serious about religion but took the Episcopal faith for granted. Young Franklin was expected to attend Sunday service at St. James’, and he did so without objection. In that sense, his belief was instinctive. Nevertheless, he remained committed to his boyhood church until his death, serving first as junior vestryman, then as vestryman, and finally as senior warden. After he became president, vestry meetings were usually held at Springwood and would often extend into the early morning hours.
Religious faith provided one of the sources of FDR’s unflagging optimism. Deep down, he possessed serene confidence in the divine purpose of the universe. He was convinced that however bad things might be at the moment, they were bound to come out all right if he remained patient and put his faith in God. Once asked by [his wife] Eleanor whether he believed everything he had learned in church, Roosevelt replied that he had never really thought about it. “I think it is just as well not to think about things like that too much.” (FDR, p. 24.)
Ronald Reagan had a similar buoyancy—and his equally indispensable leadership in the late 20th Century also turned the country and the world in a much better direction than fear-driven leaders could ever have done.
We could all use a little of that spirit. Above all, we must stop running on fear, and must stopping feeding our own (and other people’s) fears.
Jesus instructed us to “love, don’t hate” our enemies. And we are assured in 1st John 4:18 that: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear; because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” The Gospel of Phillip (not included in the New Testament) says somewhere that it is impossible for anyone who has fear to yet have faith. So, if your habitual fearfulness inclines you disagree with my central advice, may I suggest that your dispute is not so much with me, as with a much higher authority deep within your own nature.
� 2014 Steve Grow - All Rights Reserved
Steve Grow holds degrees in physics, law and philosophy. He is a retired lawyer who practiced business law for many years. He studied philosophy and cognitive psychology at the graduate level, including working with one of the world’s leading scholars on the work of Aristotle. He was co-editor in chief of his college newspaper. He has observed and wondered about history, psychology, religion, politics, journalism and good (and bad) government since childhood.
He believes that, now and always, the central problem in politics is monitoring and governing those in political positions—so that ordinary people are the ultimate governors and can hold those in office fully accountable. Ordinary people deserve, and need, full legal protection of their privacy. In contrast, all activities of those in government should be open to full scrutiny at all times. In a certain sense, ordinary people should be “ungovernable” and accorded a broad measure of privacy – on the other hand, politicians and their actions should be open to monitoring, closely watched and constrained. Anyone with a contrary view, he believes, is an enemy of freedom—wittingly or unwittingly.