"We have nothing to fear, but fear itself." FDR said that, in 1933, during his first inaugural address. He was talking about the Great Depression, but he could have been addressing the human condition across all times and places.
The things we fear cause us to take steps to protect ourselves. That's sensible and survival oriented. It's obviously the wise course. The only problem is that often the things we fear aren't the things that are really dangerous, and the steps we take actually cause us to put ourselves in harm's way.
The problem is that reality, and our perceptions of reality, are frequently at odds with each other. This is true all over the place; but it's really dangerous when we look at our perceptions of risk.
Things seem more risky when the consequences are horrifying, like being eaten alive.
They seem more risky when they are imposed by an outside force, and we are powerless to stop the action or avoid the consequences.
They seem more risky when we've never heard of that happening before. Old threats get worn out, and we stop thinking about them: but new ones present themselves with heart-stopping urgency.
Things seem more risky when they happen to large groups of people all at once. When a lot of people die at the same time and place, we assume the circumstances were fatal, and become determined never to be in a similar situation.
All of this is very understandable. So is the flip side, that of things seeming less risky than they really are.
For instance, if a risk is common and familiar it seems less compelling. We all know that car accidents happen daily; but unless we have been in one recently, we get in our vehicles without thinking twice about it.
If the risk is one we are choosing ourselves, it seems less dangerous. Making the choice gives us power in the situation. We have the feeling that we control the outcome, to some extent. That makes us feel more secure, even if we really aren't.
If the consequences are far removed in time from the cause, the whole thing feels less risky. There are many things that have a very dangerous cumulative effect, such as smoking, unprotected sex, or sunburn; yet the effect won't be seen for months or years. We know that these things are all risky, but they don't feel hazardous when we're doing them.
To illustrate what I'm talking about, take sun exposure. It's very common, we choose to spend the time in the sun, and the only immediate effect is a possible sunburn. So it feels safe. And yet, sun exposure is fairly risky.
According to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, melanomas caused by solar radiation resulted in 7,800 deaths in 2000. That's more than the National Safety Council lists for deaths resulting from riding a motorcycle, falling on stairs, exposure to smoke, fire, and flames, assult with sharp objects, and airplane accidents combined! Yet all of those things “feel” more risky than a little sunburn.
Still, you may ask, what's my point? So there is a “judgment gap” between what we perceive as risky, and the stuff that's really dangerous. So what?
The problem is that we often put ourselves in real risk to avoid things that only feel risky.
For instance, you may decide to drive to a different state, instead of flying, so you won't be killed by a terrorist attack on the plane, unaware that you are 225,409 times more likely to die in a car accident than such a terrorist attack.
We may also concentrate on risk, focus on danger, and so put ourselves in a constant state of fear.
This is fueled by the media. Although we may often forget it, the business of the news is to sell advertising space, which is accomplished by selling circulation. That's true of all news from paper through radio, tv, and the internet news sites. The more people who look at the news, the more people who see the ads. So the media sensationalizes things; it preys on the known facts about human perception to frighten people, so they will stop and look.
There are real problems with living in fear.
For one thing, fear causes chemical changes that prepare us for “flight or fight.” This is fine occasionally, and is very good indeed when we're really in a life-threatening emergency.
But constant exposure to these chemicals exacerbates any health problem, and can cause high blood pressure, headaches, and heart disease. It quite literally shortens your life.
Fear also makes people more conservative.
The more frightened people are, the less tolerance we have for new things, and the more we cling to that which is familiar, and therefore predictable. (This makes sense, since we don't know what is going to happen when we are faced with something we've never encountered before.)
Unfortunately, this remains true even if what we are used to is harming us, and the new thing might help. It's still new, and we don't trust it.
This is particularly true of other people behaving in “new” ways. That triggers two of the top “risk perceptions,” after all, since it's both new and imposed from outside.
Fear also makes people easier to manipulate. When we are already afraid most of the time, we do whatever we can to lessen the feelings, and regain some composure.
We feel as if we aren't in control, and perversely give our power away to those who look as if they are, forgetting that what they are really controlling is us.
You can see this all the time, from the Patriot Bill that was passed after 9/11, to people who join religions, buy products, or become aggressive on command, all to feel safe.
The problem, of course, is that this fear based conformity, like other things we do because of the “judgment gap,” actually increases the danger we face.
For one thing, when everyone is in lockstep, there are fewer points of view, so there are fewer options that can be presented in a real emergency, and fewer possible solutions to any and all problems.
For another, conformity causes stress and fear of its own, as members of the group strive to retain good standing within it. People are all different, by nature. In order to appear the same, we must all spend a good deal of time suppressing our differences, which causes stress.
For a third, rigidly conformist groups tend to break into violence when confronted with things they have declared unthinkable. Fanatics of all stripes are dangerous. Part of this, I'm sure, is because they don't want to appear to sympathize with the “different” ones, and lose status in their own group. But part is because they are unable to think clearly and rationally about whatever the topic is. Thoughts have been replaced by memorized rules; and although that is easier in the short term, in the long term it's deadly, to themselves and others.
Finally, such conformity erodes the quality of life that the members can enjoy. Indeed, in many such groups, it seems that enjoying anything is forbidden. So, in an attempt to become “safe,” to prolong our life, we may find that we have given up everything that made life worth living. And the kicker is, we still aren't safe!
Because, really, safety is an illusion.
There isn't any way to be perfectly safe; we're all going to die somehow, some day.
But we can decrease our risks, and become safer than we are now.
In order to do that, though, there are a few steps we have to take.
First, we must realize that the only person we can really change, the only one we do (or should) have real control of, is ourselves. I can write essays like this, attempting to persuade you to change your behavior; but you have to decide to change for yourself.
Ranting, railing, and forcing legislation may make us feel better; but it actually increases the risk for ourselves and others. Calm, rational thinking, on the other hand, decreases it.
So the second thing we have to do is learn how to think calmly and rationally. That's a skill, and it does have to be learned; but anyone can learn it. (I have an article to get you started here, if you want to look.)
The third thing we have to do is find out what the odds really are of being injured or killed while engaging in a given activity. You can find those by looking at the websites of the National Safety Council, the Center for Disease Control, or the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.
These are all good sites. When I wrote this essay, in 2003, The National Safety Council had a list of your chances of dying from various things (in 2000,) and the Center for Disease Control not only tracked diseases like SARS (which isn't as prevalent as you might think from the coverage it's gotten) and West Nile Virus (ditto,) but also had a list of Hoaxes and False Reports. I know this will shock you; but not all the horror stories that appear in your e-mail are true. Sadly, the statistical table is gone now, and the CDC no longer reports on hoaxes. But if you Search for specific things, you can still find both odds and hoaxes.
Of course, the national odds, which are derived from dividing the population in 2000 with the number of people who died a given way, aren't necessarily true for every individual. (If you don't ride in three-wheel vehicles, for instance, you have far less chance of dying in one. If you do, your chance is higher than that listed, since the risk is spread over the whole population, and most people don't.)
You can also take many steps to reduce the risk in your own home and life. Things as simple as installing smoke alarms, and making sure they have fresh batteries, can reduce your risk of dying in a house fire significantly.
Simply being aware of your environment, instead of wandering around on “autopilot” can reduce your risk in nearly every situation.
We can also work to promote diversity in all aspects of life. As we become more familiar with diversity, it becomes less frightening. As conformity is valued less and less, the violence associated with it may also lessen. (Not, I'm afraid, for the individual conformists. They're likely to become more violent, it seems. But for the society as a whole, which should result in fewer incidents.)
And we can do our homework, and find out about the things which frighten us.
Running from our fears increases them, and gives them more power. Facing them returns the power to us. Nothing calms fears like finding out first hand that you can survive the encounter.
At the very least, learning as much as possible about the things that frighten us will teach us exactly what about them we need to fear, how to protect ourselves, and how to fight them if necessary. After all, there are some things out there that should frighten us. But fear of the known is a far different thing than fear of the unknown.
Finally, we need to stop fearing fear itself.
Knowning we can never be absolutely safe, we should embrace the lessons of our own mortality.
Love the things you love as strongly as you can while you have them, since love is the only thing that really lasts.
Celebrate diversity! It's the closest we can come to being safe from each other.
And remember that life is uncertain, so have dessert first!