What is fear other than anticipation of the worst? From the smallest threat we can conjure disaster. Learning how to tolerate uncertainty, with a hope for good outcomes leavened by the reality of risk, underlies every conception of courage. As with all things, the middle road between terror and insensibility is the only path upon which we can pursue happiness in the face of our mortality.
If it is true that in life we are more likely to get, not what we deserve, but what we expect, how can we adjust our expectations in the direction of optimism without becoming hopelessly naïve? In our interactions with other people we betray what we anticipate by the way we behave, the expression on our face, the tone of our voice. How many times have we seen visibly irritated people at airline counters or hotel registration desks testing the patience of those trying to help them by their aggressive, demanding attitudes. One of the most revealing behaviors in our repertoire is the way we treat those who are providing us a service: waiters, retail clerks, cab drivers. These interactions are so important that I routinely ask about them when talking to those questioning whether to proceed with marriage. Self-absorbed people tend to have unrealistic expectations about how the world will accommodate them and are often inflexible and easily angered under stress. Paradoxically, the anticipation that the world will recognize their specialness and usher them to the head of the line often results in poorer rather than better service if their demands provoke resentment.
In the area of healthcare, for example, I have witnessed enough medical mistakes to know that some people have more trouble than others getting good care. Some such errors are randomly distributed and the fault of providers; others appear to be a commentary on the patience of the patient. One woman I am aware of was notoriously critical and demanding of the nursing staff and yet wondered why she had trouble getting her call button answered and was the victim an above-average number of errors in her medication dosages. This reinforced her convictions about the general incompetence of her care providers.
Our choice of attitude and its consequences is very important in how we confront our fears. Survivors of natural disasters, shocked by the devastation around them, routinely talk about rebuilding. The part about these interviews that I find distressing is the attribution of one's survival to divine intervention. "I prayed and God protected me," is a common response. We can assume that those who did not survive also prayed. I sometimes wonder if the interviewer ever wants to ask, "Why were your prayers more worthy of God's intervention that those of your neighbor, dead in the rubble of her home?" No one ever asks that, of course. Since God's ways are beyond our comprehension, he gets all the credit and none of the blame, whatever happens. First among our fears, it seems, is the loneliness implicit in the idea that we live in an indifferent universe.
Somewhere between the narcissistic belief that we individually are the center of the universe and the conception that we are actors in a preordained play stage-managed by God is a large area in which we operate under the constraints of time and chance, but still have choices about how to live. Whether our lives are dominated by anxiety and selfishness, or whether we choose to cope with our fears through generosity and tolerance determines the kind of world we create for ourselves and each other. This dichotomy is seldom discussed when we argue about decisions concerning standards of personal conduct or philosophies of government. But all our conceptions of how to live, individually and collectively, hinge on beliefs about our obligations to each other and respect for people's rights to live in ways different than we do.
It is unfortunate that religiously-based philosophies of life occupy the conservative extreme of our political system. Any faith-based system is impervious to logic or scientific evidence (see evolution and global warming) and cannot resist the impulse to coerce others who may be guided by different systems of beliefs (see abortion, the death penalty, or the rights of homosexuals). When the conservative belief in "small government" collides with the desire to force others to behave in accord with biblical proscriptions, coercion wins. What is at stake in these differing political concepts is nothing less than a disagreement about the fundamental nature of human beings. Are we born in sin and socialized only by the imposition of proscriptions ("Thou shalt not...") or are we inclined to help others and organize our society in which the more fortunate have an obligation to help the less fortunate? The view that emphasizes punishment and coercion is basically fear-driven, hence the need for a large military and free access to guns to protect ourselves.
An example of our reflexive and ineffective use of punishment to control human appetites is the "war on drugs" declared by President Nixon in June 1971. His proposed solutions for drug abuse and its social consequences resulted in a failed 40-year experiment with draconian laws and failed attempts at supply interdiction that have resulted in the incarceration of millions. This approach little effect other than to drive up the cost of illegal substances and enrich those who deal in them and the creation of a huge law enforcement and prison industry. It is as if we learned nothing from our 13-year experiment with Prohibition. This approach is emblematic of the "fear and force" approach to dealing with human problems, in this case the common medical/social issue of addiction.
The strictness of child-rearing practices (including a fondness for corporal punishment) among very religious people is further evidence of the belief in the essential sinfulness of human nature and the need for external restraint. We are in danger here of a self-fulfilling prophecy in which those permanently disadvantaged by a social system that favors the wealthy and neglects or punishes the rest of the less powerful produces an underlying resentment and cynicism that poisons our attempts to live peacefully with one another. These battles may be fought on grounds of constitutionalism and the role of government in our lives, but the underlying issues of fairness, fear, and our obligations to each other must somehow be brought into the debate if we are to reach an understanding. Not since we fought a civil war over slavery, another disagreement over what it means to be human, have the stakes been as high.
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