Being fearless in a fearful world

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I am tired of angry people. I am sick of fear. And I am sick and tired of violence.

There is a notion that evil is caused by aggressive instincts. I don’t think that is exactly true, because even heroism is often due to quick and decisive action. Instead, as the author Neal Stephenson has pointed out, doing good works rather than evil requires not passivity but self-discipline.

Goodness requires an interest in improving the world around us, or in helping some person other than ourselves. This is a sign of maturity. Even those who have little for themselves can offer a kind act or word to another. Indeed, the humblest among us are the most saintly.

The opposite is true of those who think first of themselves, and worse, of those who try to coerce others for their own benefit. The word narcissism comes to mind in the most extreme cases.

It is not hard to spot people who are focused on themselves instead of others. Unfortunately, such people can be very skilled at convincing you to help them. One of their favorite techniques is to incite fear.

It is our nature to be wary. Fear is a powerful protective instinct. As emotional beings, we can easily be drawn into letting our excitement drive our choices and actions. It takes discipline to be calm and to use reason to collect information and make rational decisions. Not many people are going to encourage you to think. Every politician, every person with some sort of cause, and every advertiser, wants you to get excited and to do what they ask. Right now. Even friends will want you to do the same and join them.

It is easy to think of examples in history where our susceptibility to fear has produced tragic results, not just as individuals, but as a world.

Perhaps the most obvious case was Nazi Germany. Hitler’s early book Mein Kampf is a boundless exercise in narcissism, appeal to emotion, distorted logic, hatred, and the development of fear. In that book, he instructs people to avoid reading anything that might contradict their beliefs.

Hitler exaggerated common concerns and blamed entire religions (such as Judaism) and cultures (such as the Slavic peoples of Russia). Naming millions as enemies is simpler than solving real problems. Hitler encouraged the Sturmabteilung (SA), known as the brownshirts, to propagate fear as he began to seek power.

There are plenty of personalities who have tried to convince the public to be afraid: Coughlin, McCarthy, Goldwater. Even today, there are those in the media who make a business out of fear and outrage, such as Rush Limbaugh on the right, or Russell Brand on the left.

Being scared might help you a little if you are being attacked by a bee. But it is a poor basis for making decisions, or just living life.

I used to be full of anxiety. Now, I avoid angry people and fear-mongering media. I worked with my doctor to control my blood pressure and also eliminated caffeine from my diet.

I am not suggesting that humans should become emotionless. I am saying that our health, both as individuals and as a species, depends on our trying to avoid fear, hatred, and anger. We have so many positive emotions to feel and share!

I believe that destructive feelings are often grounded in difficulties in our personal lives. The situation is then exacerbated by those who would gain from it, even to leading people into extremist behavior.

When I was a volunteer with the local fire-rescue, I treated many people who suffered from violence, addictions, crime and personal crises, either of their own or their loved ones. I believe that early access to professionals who are willing and able to help reduce stress in otherwise ordinary lives can stop the emotional decline to which we are all susceptible.

I would support government-funded stress counseling clinics, open at least three days a week, in every town of 5,000 people or more across the nation. When I was a county commissioner, I called together a summit of professionals in both the mental health and substance abuse fields. One of our resulting actions was to print and distribute cards listing toll-free phone numbers for personal help. The Hot Line in Maine is 1-888-568-1112. For those who are not in crisis, but would just like someone to talk to, there is also a private and confidential Warm Line at 1-866-771-9276 (WARM).

Help someone, or yourself, become fearless.

Mark D. Grover is a resident of Gray. Your comments may be sent to feedback@markdgrover.com