Fear Stifles Mercy

Scared, part 1

In Melanie Watt's children's story, Scaredy Squirrel, our hero discovers the pleasures of leaping into the unknown. It is, of course, a lesson for us all.

There’s a lot of fear in our country. Many people were driven by fears of immigrants to vote last November for a man who promised a wall. (Is there any clearer symbol of fear?) And now there’s fear coming from the other side – fear of what is happening to our country. There’s a lot of fear on both sides of the partisan divide. Fear makes us less willing to extend mercy.

Fear itself typically does us more damage than the things we’re afraid of. For example, just after 9-11, for instance, fear of airplanes went up as you might imagine. Analyzing patterns of car use and airplane travel after 9-11 shows that there was a shift from airplanes to cars that lasted about one year. We have pretty good ways to measure total vehicle miles traveled, and, during the year it took a year for the fear of airplanes to die down, return to normal levels, we saw people putting in more miles by car. The thing is, airplane travel is safer. The fatalities per vehicle mile traveled stayed constant, so as automobile travel went up, so did traffic fatalities. Analysis of the numbers indicated that the extra car travel in the year after 9-11 killed just shy of 1600 people more than would have died had vehicle miles stayed constant. The actual collapse of the twin towers killed less than 3,000 people. The increased fear of airplanes over the next year killed over half again that many. Fear kills.

At home, children are forbidden from playing alone outdoors, as all generations did before, because their parents are convinced “every bush hides a pervert.” As it happens:
“Obesity, diabetes, and the other health problems caused in part by too much time sitting inside are a lot more dangerous than the specters haunting parental imaginations." (Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger, 13)
Fear, of course, has its purpose. We need fear. Fear helps us survive by grabbing our attention when there’s something to which we need to be attentive, and by gearing up energy to protect ourselves. We need to have the fear response. The thing is, though, that the fear response is often not very bright. The fear response can’t even tell the difference between your first-hand experience and someone else’s stories. It believes the examples that are most readily at hand. Statistics and rational risk analysis have no effect on the fear response. Fear will fixate on one lurid story. And that was fine for our hunter-gatherer ancestors who never traveled very far. For our ancestors, any vivid memory of danger ready to hand, was probably a memory of something that actually happened in their presence and not far from where they were at that moment. In a situation that looked similar to that memory, the warning bells of fear made sense.

But a system that grabs our attention like that is ripe for manipulation. So the evening news specializes in what is scary because it grabs attention. That’s what they need for their ratings. The consequence is that the overall fear in our lives grows.

Murder, terrorism, fire, flood – and sharks – seize our fearful imaginations. Risks like diabetes, asthma, and heart disease – and auto accidents -- are much greater but get less of our attention.
Citizens fear our undocumented neighbors and whites fear people of color, when the risks to our national prosperity are much greater from the reactive actions taken in the grip of this fear.

There is in our world a refugee crisis, with the plight of Syrian refugees especially heartrending. From worldvision.org:
  • 13.5 million people in Syria need humanitarian assistance due to a violent civil war that began in 2011.
  • 4.9 million Syrians are refugees, and 6.1 million are displaced within Syria; half of those affected are children.
  • Children affected by the Syrian conflict are at risk of becoming ill, malnourished, abused, or exploited. Millions have been forced to quit school.
  • Most Syrian refugees remain in the Middle East, in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt; slightly more than 10 percent of the refugees have fled to Europe.
The March issue of On the Journey, on the topic of Mercy, which our Journey Groups will be discussing this month, includes a moving piece about this by my colleague, Rev. Erika Hewitt:
“For many reasons, people depart. They leave home—or the places given to them, in place of home that might’ve been lost to war—and seek refuge from a thousand dangers and uncertainties. For many reasons—many of them inconceivable to us, who live in relative peace and prosperity—people can’t stay where they are, in the places they know; so for themselves and for their children, they trade the hell they know for the unknown, and the foreign. For so many reasons—unimaginable to me, and maybe to you, too—people give up their sense of belonging; they surrender the climate and food and sounds and smells that their bodies have always known for the new, the unfamiliar, the harsh and unlearnable....Some members of our human family are throwing their arms wide to welcome those seeking mercy and seeking home; others are nearly taking up arms to drive them away....Those of us who call ourselves Americans are all, to some degree, complicit in the unstable geopolitical disasters that result in such vast human suffering....Our country’s own policies are culpable, and by extension, us: we have protected our American lifestyle of consumption and corporate rule....We’ve lost a bit of our soul. That’s what fear does. Fear is a voice that says: nothing matters more than self-preservation and self-importance. Fear drains the antifreeze out of your heart so your compassion center runs cold; it cuts off the feeding tubes that keep our souls supple and our morality intact....How much would it cost us to invoke the Principles of our faith, and the beating heart of our ethical lives, by saying: ‘We’re a single, interconnected human family.’ ‘We make one another stronger and braver by sharing what we have.’ ‘All people have the same worth and the same inherent dignity; [and] no human being is illegal.’ ‘The suffering of people beyond our borders asks us to examine how we’ve created the conditions for its existence.’” (Hewitt, "Seeking Mercy, Seeking Home")
Too many of our fellow residents of these United States have let fear make them deaf to this need for mercy. Fear kills, and mercy is the first fatality.

* * *
This is part 1 of 2 of "Scared"
See also
Part 2: What Does Mercy Have to Say?

Letting Go: Fear

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