Fears R Us

I sometimes feel as if we Americans are living in a national Doomsday cult—or some nightmare far worse.

Although the timeline for our imminent demise due to global warming/species die-off/genetically modified crops/fire/flood/drought/ leaf burning/natural resource shortages/mass infrastructure failure/killer bees/lawn chemicals/cell phones/slow internet/sugary soft drinks/atomic war/pollution/lone gunmen/poor dietary choices/incivility/general stupidity is instantly extended whenever one deadline or another passes, it is difficult to escape the constant message that our very existence as the keystone predator on the planet earth is about to end.

Over the past couple of decades. the general prescription offered to forestall the end of the world as we know it has always seemed to be either a new tax, a new fee, a new law, a new bureaucracy, a new government program, a new form of state-sanctioned monitoring or control, or expanded censorship of thought and expression—basically more power flowing ever upwards from the general population to a distant priesthood of the educated, enlightened, and unaccountable elites.

In other words, Superman won’t save us—but the 2nd Assistant to the Secretary of the Global Commission on World Oversight surely will.

Doomsday cults must, by definition, be able to accomplish two basics: scare us half to death about our impending deaths and offer the only possibility for salvation. This is necessary in order to engender the overwhelming fear that ensures mute compliance. The constant drumbeat of documentary and news reports explaining the disasters soon to befall us provides the fear. The sage—and usually government employed or sponsored—experts explaining the only possible solutions provide the hope for salvation. The mass media, of course, love these types of stories and run them constantly and gleefully because their audiences are like audiences everywhere—we just can’t look away from a frightening and gory car accident.

Fed a constant diet of the coming—and certain—apocalypse, many people naturally sink into hopelessness and despair or join the Doomsday cult itself, where they grasp for control of their own lives by adopting a quasi-mystical belief in the protective powers of all that is “natural” while voting for candidates who promise new and improved controls of individual behaviors and personal beliefs that they find upsetting or threatening.

Like small children who insist that mommy check under their beds for monsters before bedtime, these fearful people loudly and continually demand that which can never be guaranteed in a vast and complex world: an absolute freedom from all fears—both real and imagined. Perhaps it is little wonder that 1 out of 6 Americans are reportedly now filling a prescription for either anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication. It is kind of a drag being constantly told that the world as you know it is resting on crumbling precipice overlooking a deep and unforgiving chasm—and no one has yet devised a way to provide the protection that you now so desperately require.

It is, of course, the case that real problems do exist that are harming our lives and daily existences—American life expectancy has, for example, now dropped for three years in a row—but it is also certainly true that many risks are exaggerated while others that might actually pose a more dire threat are paradoxically ignored. Possibly it is simply the case that the fears that seem more grim and tangible are more likely to seize our attention. Hollywood studios are, for example, going to sell more tickets with a movie that revolves around a gigantic meteor striking the earth (which is exceedingly unlikely to ever occur) rather than one that deals with the ongoing and decades-long collapse of academic standards in our nation’s public schools—which is happening right now and is truly horrifying.

It is perfectly understandable that we pay more attention to spurting blood, cacophonous explosions, and piteous screaming, but an idiotic decision made on a sunny Thursday afternoon inside a quiet conference room at a federal agency in Washington, D.C. is far more likely to be the causal agent for the next catastrophe affecting our lives.

Moreover, rather than focus on the many, many problems that are outside our control, perhaps we can most immediately and dramatically improve our lives by focusing our energies and irritation upon those matters we can most directly impact.

Spend a day in your children’s classrooms and see what is—and what is not—being done to prepare them for future success. Go to a county planning board meeting and find out what is—and what is not—being done to provide affordable housing in your region. Attend a public meeting at your local police department and learn what is—and what is not—being done to reduce crime in your community. Most importantly, ask questions, expect answers—and take action. Doomsday cults preach the end of the world precisely because it encourages passivity and thereby empowers the priesthood; instead resolve to be active and involved in your own life and that of your town or city. Leave the priesthood to babble among themselves.

Big national and international problems grab our attention, but a thousand smaller local problems offer our best opportunity to exit the cult of utter hopelessness and seize control of our own lives. I guarantee that taking action will feel a lot better than being a powerless victim waiting for some bureaucrat or government agency to improve your life—or provide the security that you crave.

However, as I write this, I find myself wondering whether I am wrong that we are living the nightmare of a national Doomsday cult. In could, in fact, be the case that a problem far more nefarious and dangerous is actually afoot, and this explains why the obvious solution to fear and passivity—bold thought and action—is simply beyond the reach of so many who seem sincerely flummoxed at the notion that they need to take responsibility for their own happiness and well-being.

Those who work in our nation’s penal systems speak of the problem of “institutionalization” that affects those prisoners who have been incarcerated for many, many years. Having grown so accustomed to having all of their life decisions made by all-powerful authorities who control every aspect of their daily existences, these prisoners eventually reach a point where they are simply unable to function outside of a cage because no one is directing and managing their lives.

Maybe this accounts for the odd and seemingly inexplicable mixture of unfocused anger and crazed frustration that seems to grip so many today—particularly our younger men and women who struggle mightily with the very basics of “adulting” as they flail aimlessly and disastrously through their lives. Having grown up with helicopter parents who hovered over their every move and compelled them to continually trudge along a pre-determined life path, perhaps they are now simply unable to survive without someone directing their every action.

Thankfully I still meet many young men and women who are able and aware, but I am often startled by others who find the ideas of independent thought and action completely beyond their grasp. Given that a successful transition from child to adult requires the ability to embrace and navigate complex—and sometimes conflicting—life needs, the crippling inability to manage adult responsibilities is driving skyrocketing rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among those in their late teens and twenties today.

A Doomsday cult might be too charitable a metaphor for our social, political, and cultural life in America today. Perhaps a better metaphor is one that is much simpler and more direct: a prison. This prison is not one made of concrete and steel. It is instead one where the bars of the cells are forged of the fears that are constantly drummed into our heads by those who find monetary and political advantage to be found in frightening us. In doing so they are polarizing our nation, destroying our young, and creating crises far greater than those they claim to be able to solve. By ruthlessly promoting never ending fear over assertive confidence, they are encouraging the misery and passivity that is killing so many souls and condemning us all to live locked in our own sad, little cells—with no hope for escape.

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