The Fine Art Of Fearing Life

To never need to worry about bullies and boneheads, to be treated with the greatest respect by everyone, to never be cheated or lied to, and to be rewarded for each and every accomplishment or good deed would be glorious.

Unfortunately, life isn’t like this, and it is human nature to seek to blame others when life does not always go as hoped or planned.

It is, of course, perfectly reasonable to recognize the various ways that the actions or inactions of others create obstacles for us. Learning to avoid people who are toxic—or just plain crazy—is one of life’s most useful lessons, and we all bear the brunt of the idiocy and maliciousness of others at various points. It stinks, but it’s a fact.

However, a huge problem arises when we decide that all of our setbacks and disappointments—every single one—are the fault of others.  This increasingly common but completely illogical belief comforts us by absolving us of any fault for failing to reach our goals or messing up in any one of the million ways we messy humans sometimes screw up our own lives with impulsive decisions, and the bad habit of scanning the horizon for victimizers rather than engaging in healthy self-examination also impedes the personal development that should come with maturation because there is no reason to think carefully about our poorly conceived life choices and actions.

Whatever goes wrong is, of course, someone else’s fault. Right?

This sad self-delusion certainly helps to explain the infuriating shortcomings of adult-sized adolescents who continue to make the same mistakes over and over again while refusing to recognize their own roles in turning their lives into train wrecks.

Worse still, continually labeling ourselves as victims of forces beyond our control turns us into passive and angry individuals who will expend enormous energy pointing fingers instead taking charge of our own lives.

I saw a great deal of this as an educator, encountering numerous students who insisted that they were “not good” at writing or reading, which they apparently assumed was just the luck of the draw. When I pointed out that no one is born literate, that writing and reading are skills that virtually everyone can learn with time and sustained effort, I often received a confused look in return. For far too many adolescents and young adults the idea of personal responsibility for their learning seemed almost physically painful. Passively accepting oncoming academic doom was, much to my surprise, often preferable to owning their own success or failure.

Many of the defining ideologies of the troubled age in which we live, climate change alarmism and Critical Race Theory being the two most prominent, presuppose the existence of implacable forces that are beyond the ability of individuals to surmount, which naturally leads to the demand for expensive and intrusive governmental programs to “protect” Americans, all of whom are obviously and permanently helpless, from inevitable and irreparable harm. 

Eventually, and this certainly seems to be the case for many today in America, any risk whatsoever becomes intolerable, which perhaps helps to explain a good portion of the recent societal and financial wreckage surrounding the irrational panic over Covid-19, a virus with a 99.8% survivability. 

The difference between living and existing is the difference between understanding risks and being overwhelmed by them. As much as one might feel sorry for those who are terrified by the world around them, sometimes it is best to remind them the world is full of germs, sharp objects, fall risks, animals and insects that bite, hot surfaces, hurtling machinery—and an infinite variety of unexpected and unwanted consequences. Striving for absolute safety rather than reasonable caution makes us easy marks for those selling the snake oil of guaranteed security and the false contentment of sheltering in place with a face mask, a gallon of hand sanitizer, and a mountain of toilet paper.

Ameliorating risk is reasonable; presuming risk can be eliminated altogether is a prescription for a very timid and circumscribed life.

We have, throughout the course of human history, sought security. At one point we put our faith in priests and shamans. Today we trust a wide variety of experts whose expertise might actually lie in groupthink platitudes and lining their own pockets.

Thinking for ourselves and taking responsibility for our own lives and futures might be scary for some, but the sad alternative is to be endlessly afraid, hopeless, and manipulated by others.