Living with Fearful Thinking

My sister dropped me on Instagram having heard enough, I suspect, of my support for individuals on the fringes of society. Maybe it was my post on children in cages at the border, or maybe it was the lack of a pandemic response? I’m not sure what her last straw was (we haven’t spoken, yet), but I suspect it is the fear-based thoughts about the coming American apocalypse as promoted by the current Administration.

In recent days, the president has proclaimed that seniors would have no air conditioning, that projects will be built in suburban neighborhoods, and that crime was coming to the doorstep of families far and wide with the election of Democrats this year. The fear mongering is impressive in the hysteria promoted by the current president and from my conversations with my sister, it’s clear to me that she and her family have bought into that mindset.

Really, however, it’s not the current moment that has so many people spooked in the United States. Fear-thinking has been around for a very long time in this country and has been used by many people to encourage actions as broad as violence toward groups of people to voting for a candidate. Fear, it seems, is a powerful motivator for some.

In my own lifetime, I can remember Ronald Reagan scaring the public with the threat of Russians threatening global extinction through their nuclear arsenal. Reagan, using the language of war, claimed that his election would turn the tide on the rising conflict and help prevent the kind of destruction the nation might see with the election of Carter. His fear mongering, similar to the current president, promoted the idea that people must vote based on their fear of what could be. In a famous ad “The Bear in the Woods” Reagan suggested that a bear (a Russian bear) was lurking in the woods ready to attack. This ad displayed, as clearly as any, the fear that some force was coming for America.

Why, then, are people acting based on fear? Why is fear such a powerful force in this election and in the United States?

While we can name numerous factors that play into the current state of fear (COVID spreading, economic catastrophe, murder hornets) one core piece of the puzzle is the role racial politics play in the way Americans see themselves and the world. The deeply ingrained fear of the “other”; Native tribes, black men, Irish, German, and Mexican immigrants, thugs, robbers, thieves in the night, the boogyman, or gay men marching in a Pride Parade are all threats to the structure of a civil society in American cultural history. It only takes a famous person or powerful government official to fan the flames of fear, bringing along with it the commensurate reaction of an easily manipulated populace.

In this context, those of us not driven by these various societal dog whistles watch in astonishment as those around us are driven to panic. Offering compassion and kindness seems to illicit an equal and opposite response of hate and anger. Staying in that moment with a loved one filled with such resentment is hard. In most cases I’ve witnessed and been a part of, the situation only resolves when one person leaves the situation (aka my sister dropping me on Instagram).

Too, avoiding the smug reaction of indignity and sense of entitlement at having the “right” response in this moment is the wrong approach. Those who are caught in thinking things will be worse after a candidate is elected or that some group of people will tare down their homes, fall into the trap that our lives are based on some mythical perception of how things could be better “if only” this happens. In fact, we know that even in some of the worst cases in the world, lives move on and the world continues to spin. (I am NOT saying that elections or social changes don’t matter; they do have an impact AND our power to resist is more broad and effective than we imagine)

As I contemplate what I am going to say to my sister, I think about how, given her situation, what chance does she have to escape the fear she lives with in her life? Watching Fox television and buying into the various conspiracy theories about our world that feed the fear she feels is almost impossible to stop. I am not, it seems, a savior.

What I can do, however, is be present to hear those fears and listen. Not to change her mind, but to repeat back to her the thinking she is articulating. Maybe, by helping her hear her own words, she can hear the fear that captures her imagination. I’m not sure what the answers are for our family and friends. What I do know is not having an answer is, actually, the best place to be.

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