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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Culture of Fear*

Sometimes, you're better off not knowing.
Photo by Thomas P. Peschak.

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, May 16, 2010
as "Sane Days and Peaceful Nights"

Copyright © 2009 by Ralph Couey

Last summer over Labor Day, our family went to Washington D.C. to take in the sites. It was warm and humid and we eagerly sought the cool air inside the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. The Smithsonian, or “America’s Attic,” is home to a seemingly infinite number of items, ranging from the historical to the merely curious. In one side gallery dedicated to diamonds, is a heavily fortified clear display case holding the legendary Hope Diamond. This huge 45.5-carat blue gem draws thousands daily, sparkling smugly and seductively behind the thick bullet-proof glass. As people cluster around the case, usually you can hear a woman say wistfully, “Honey, if you really loved me…”

This day was no different. The room was crowded, but despite the close atmosphere, no one seemed to mind. The conversations were muted, the atmosphere was calm.

Then, someone sneezed.

Today, we seem to live in a world full of looming disasters. At that time, the Sword of Damocles was the H1N1 influenza strain, more familiarly known as Swine Flu. It was reported with no small amount of hysteria that the virus had put humanity on the very brink. We saw pictures of people wearing masks and gloves; touching had been outlawed in several places. Schools closed, businesses shut down, people told to stay home.

On that humid summer day in D.C., the entire crowd reacted to the sneeze, momentarily shrinking away from the sound. The location of the unfortunate sneezer was momentarily visible as a space magically opened up around a 20-something young lady working her nose with a tissue. Thus engaged, she didn’t notice the momentary quarantine. An instant later, the crowd re-positioned and life went on as before.

I was struck by that reaction. For a brief tic of time, something dark and ugly had risen in that room; a cloud of that most primal of human emotions.

Welcome to the Culture of Fear.

Humankind has always had fearful cultural obsessions; vindictive deities and monarchs, disease and revolution, and even naturally-occurring events such as a comet or an eclipse. And we have always feared strangers, people who were simply different.

In this post-9/11 world, we fear terrorists and climate change (warming or cooling, take your pick). We all await nervously the big earthquake, the killer tsunami, the super volcano, and the 10-mile-wide asteroid that will destroy us all.

When I was young, there were basically two things I feared: my Dad’s discipline and the wrath of my English teacher. Yes, as the fat, pimply-faced kid with the thick glasses I did spend my share of moments upside down in trash cans. But I was still able to live my life as a kid pretty much unfettered by the dangers outside my insular little world. There were still places where I felt safe.

Today all of us are bombarded by news about things destructive. But, I’m beginning to think that much of what we’re indoctrinated to fear may not be as imminent as we have been led to believe.

There are politicians and pundits whose job it seems to be to do nothing more than scare the pants off us. The news culture has been vastly diluted with cable and the Internet, which means those who want to be heard have to scream even louder. In order to attract ratings and justify their jobs, they engage in wide-eyed hyperbole. The only power such people have is the power we grant them; our willingness to suspend our own intellectual processes and respond blindly to their version of the truth.

They market fear, and we are eager consumers.

The biggest weapon against the fear merchants is our ability to quietly, but firmly demand…

“Cite your evidence.”

And then double check that evidence.

In this political season we need to be doubters, even when told things we desperately want to believe.

Skepticism is, after all, not illegal; just vastly underused.

There are things we cannot control. But, we can live our lives sanely by focusing on those things we can affect. Such a choice goes a long way towards de-complicating our lives.

And giving us peaceful nights.

To quote St. Francis…

“Deus, dona mihi serenitatem
Accipere res quae non possum mutare,
Fortitudinem mutare res quae possum,
Atque sapientiam differentiam cognoscere.”

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

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