What Does Mercy Have to Say?

Scared, part 2

Let me mention another issue where our fear reaction overrode both rationality and mercy: our incarceration rate.

In 1930, about 200 of every 100,000 men was incarcerated. It stayed relatively flat for the next 40 years. Indeed, as of 1970, fewer than 200 of every 100,000 men was incarcerated. By 1980 it had climbed a bit, to 275 men per 100,000. Then it really took off. By 1990, we had jumped all the way to almost 600 per 100,000. By 2000, we were over 900 men per 100,000 in state or federal prison. The male incarceration rate peaked in 2007 at about 950 per 100,000. It’s dropped a little bit since then, but still stands about triple what it was in 1980. Women’s incarceration has also increased, albeit less dramatically.

The United States has 4.4 percent of the world’s population. Yet we have 22 percent of all the world’s prisoners. And we’re paying about $74 billion a year for all those prisons and jails. Adding in the people on probation or parole, and about 1 in 32 Americans are under some form of criminal justice system control.

The causes of the drastic uptick were both greater likelihood of a prison sentence, and longer sentence terms. These were driven by many states passing three-strikes laws, and mandatory sentencing. The War on drugs is a big part of this picture.

Americans got scared. We were scared of drug addicts, and whites were scared of African Americans, who are way disproportionately incarcerated.

We’re scared whether we have any basis for it or not. Gallup polling since 1989 has found that in most years in which there was a decline in the U.S. crime rate, a majority of Americans said that violent crime was getting worse.

Researchers suggest that changes in our news media contributed to growing fear and misperception. Media consolidation reduced competition. Media executives slashed budgets for investigative journalism. It was cheaper to fill the space from the police blotter. It is safer, easier and cheaper to write about crimes committed by poor people than the wealthy – who might be funding the advertising revenue. Stories about a missing white woman are cheap to produce and grab audience share "stay tuned for unfolding developments."

Fear grows, reactivity grows – we become, as a people, less rational and less merciful. The reality is that we in the developed world are safer than any human population ever has been. Try spending an afternoon in a Victorian cemetery, noticing how many gravestones have death-dates only a few years different from the birth-dates. The defining feeling of our age ought to be gratitude, not fear. Yet it seems the less we have to fear, the more we fear.

The numbers show decreasing crime, decreasing disease, increasing lifespan. However: “Shaped in a world of campfires and flint spears, our intuition is as innately lousy with numbers as it is good with stories.” (Gardner 93)

So what are we to do? Aware that fear gets attention, that fear can dominate lives, and that fear also leads us to bad decisions, how do we deal with it? How do we find a path to mercy and compassion?

First, and foremost, notice when you’re scared. Your fear reaction is an important part of who you are. Fear is your friend, and it is just trying to protect you. Listen attentively to what fear says. Don't do what it says until you've checked it out with rational assessment, but do listen. Notice when fear arises. “Ah, there’s fear," you might say to yourself. "Eyes are opening wider, heart beating a little faster – yep, I’m experiencing fear. Hello there, fear.”

Don’t tell the fear to go away. Don’t repress or suppress. And don’t indulge, either. You didn’t consciously decide for fear to arise, so you don’t get to decide it’s going away. What you can decide to do is see through your illusion of control.

Let fear go, not in the sense of dismissing it, but actually in the sense of allowing fear to proceed. You don’t have to do what it says to give it a full hearing. And the fear reaction is sort of like an inner toddler: what it most wants is attention. If it gets the attention that it wants, its demands tend to subside. But if you ignore it or deny it, its demands will take over in more surreptitious ways.

If Fear feels listened to, then Fear will begin calming down. It may take a little while. Give it all the time it needs. It’s when we don’t acknowledge our fears that they just keep on in the background pulling our levers.

Finally, it may help to remember that source of the living tradition that we are celebrating today: Jewish and Christian teachings that call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbor as ourselves. When fear arises, and you give it a fair hearing, you can then choose to call on other inner voices you have. You can say, “OK, let me now hear from love, from that capacity within me to love my neighbor, love all beings. What does my voice of universal love have to say? What does the voice of mercy have to say?”

That’s the question to come back to, the question I leave you with: What does mercy have to say?

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This is part 2 of 2 of "Scared"
See also:
Part 1: Fear Stifles Mercy

Letting Go: Fear

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