Can you think of an instance in the past year where you have been successful at making fear useful? What fears do you hold about the year ahead? And how could you use the energy of those fears in a different way?
Believe it or not, there is not too much in this world that frightens me.
For instance, in your lifetime, your odds of being killed in a shark attack are one in nearly four million, so why would you refuse to go in the ocean? (Except for that one time in La Reunion, which is the shark attack capital of the world, and the odds of being killed there are significantly different). (Source: The Economist, The Wildlife Museum). As an American, on American soil, your odds of being killed in a terrorist attack are, approximately one in twenty million. (Source: Washington Post).
You are almost certain to meet your end by heart-disease, stroke, cancer, car accident, or suicide, rather than by any kind of violent inferno. (Except lightning strike…watch out for lightning – your odds of dying by lightning strike are approximately one in about 80,000). (Source: The Economist, CDC).
What I am saying is that we have all spent a lot of time and energy on fear this year, and maybe it was not entirely the right kind of fear directed at the right places.
Here’s another way of looking at this: When I was a college student, I became interested in some media research a professor at UCLA was working on. He was looking at the ways local media influenced public perception, and, to a lesser extent, the underlying economic motivations of news stations. It was only a handful of years after that whole OJ Simpson thing (am I dating myself here?), and the professor was curious as to whether the White Bronco was a chicken or egg phenomenon. He discovered back in the early 1990s, a number of local news stations had purchased helicopters, and had to figure out a way to finance them. Simply performing traffic and weather reports was not bringing in the kind of viewership and revenue to support a news chopper.
(This is a gross oversimplification of a whole body of media research, and several published papers, but I’m trying to do this in 800 words or less, and stay on point, so bear with me.)
So with these pricey birds came the era of the police car chase. The helicopters saddled local stations with burdensome financing and required them to justify their outlays of cash – and reporting on traffic jams only got folks so far. The news helicopter-police car chase was therefore the perfect vehicle (pardon the pun) for delivering the excitement and intrigue to local news viewers, and for making local news relevant again. It also had the (potentially) unintended side-effect of firmly convincing people that crime was rising; car chases were prevalent; and that criminals were on the loose everywhere – when in fact, during that era, crime rates were dropping dramatically and car chases were and continue to be extremely rare.
I had grown up in LA; I had seen the white Bronco on TV; I had remembered being riveted. I had believed just like everyone else that criminals were all around us, and that they were rushing down our freeways with abandon.
That day, in the media lab, I realised how wrong I had been.
Today, all around me, I see people being terrified of people who don’t look like them, when they should probably be significantly more afraid of walking outside in a storm. I see people posting things on social media about how terrified they are to send their children to a suburban school in the middle of nowhere because of the terrorists, and yet think absolutely nothing of the sugar, and Big Macs they feed their kids and themselves.
I am not saying that I haven’t had moments of being afraid. But what I am saying is that I have been trying to think a lot more carefully about what scares me.
What am I afraid of, then? With regard to my own life, I’m afraid of not taking advantage of every opportunity presented to me. I fear I will be too rigid and not balance Taking Care of Myself with Living Life to the Fullest. I am afraid I will miss precious moments with my family and friends because I am far away, or because my life is spread over several geographies.
With regard to the world, there’s other, different stuff that scares me, but that’s a conversation for having over drinks with friends – not strangers over the Internet.
But you can waste your energy and life being afraid of distant bogeymen, where the odds of you winning the Powerball are greater than you encountering one of these horrors the media has convinced you are imminent, or you can choose to live. I’ve peeked behind the curtain. I know the secret of the white Bronco. I’m not afraid.