Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What are we afraid of?

What Are We Afraid Of?

I know of a young couple and their child who were killed recently when a chunk of concrete fell off of a bridge and onto their car.  I will probably think about that the next few times I go through an underpass or tunnel, but it sure would be a waste of time to spend much energy on it.  I am going to die, and that might be how it happens, but it pretty clearly isn’t the most likely scenario.  But therein lies the rub, there is no most likely scenario for an individual. Probability only works for populations, not individuals.  The probability of 65 year old men dying of heart disease or cancer is way higher than the probability of being hit by concrete.  Nonetheless, for any single 65 year old man, just about anything might happen.  Accidents, murder, diseases, suicide, and snake bites each take their toll, and that is a very short sample of the available means for snuffing out a life.

So should we walk around afraid that something is going to happen?  I do.  And not just deadly stuff, also pretty minor stuff like losing my keys or getting lost during a trip.  Or I might worry that I will run out of money before I run out of life (that’s a pretty common one for us retired guys).   Will I die first, or will my wife.  There will be pain in each case, and no big bonus that I can see in either.

Looking a little deeper, I am basically afraid of being uncomfortable, especially if it is to the point of real suffering.  And yet, suffering is pretty much guaranteed in this life.  I am afraid of something that will almost certainly happen.   How does that help me?  I suppose it helps motivate me to take some precautions against some of the things that might contribute to a bad outcome. I could choose to drive like a maniac, drink heavily, eat until I am grossly obese, and make a habit of taunting people with bad tempers and a history of violence.  I might still get a chunk of concrete dropped on me before any of those foolish behaviors bore bitter fruit.   At age 19 I was very nearly eviscerated by a large plate of steel that I was attempting to drill a large hole in.  Another even larger chunk of steel slipped free of a clamp I was using to hoist it with a crane.  I made an instinctive motion to catch it, despite the fact it weighed a ton or more and would have squashed me like a bug.  Fortunately my second thoughts on the matter came to me very quickly.

We could say that we are afraid of things that could hurt us, but wouldn’t that be a pretty complete list of everything around us from drinking glasses to black holes?  In Singapore I was very nearly crushed by a bus simply because they drive on the left side of the road and I looked the wrong way before stepping off a curb.  A friend pulled me back just in time.  I was already pretty cautious about stepping in front of large, moving vehicles.  Habit mislead me that time, despite all those childhood admonitions to look both ways before crossing the street.

Since preemptive fear doesn’t seem to be much use, maybe we need to move toward what might be called mindful fear.  As we are in the moment and have a heightened awareness of all that is around us, we can quite rightly decide to be afraid of a charging grizzly bear or a careening drunk driver.  Hopefully the fear will prompt us to effective evasive action, although sometimes our choices may be few.   Perhaps what we call worry, anxiety, or fear of the future is really just a case of our minds devoting far too much energy trying to imagine appropriate responses to dangers that have not yet appeared, but might.   How much planning and preparation is enough?  When are we foolishly careless, and when are we absurdly cautious?

One measure I can think of is analogous to investing money.   I spend some time researching and deciding on the best move to make, and then I forget about it.  If the amount of time I spend doing that makes me too uncomfortable, I decide to spend less.  If I start having financial disasters or near misses, perhaps I should put a bit more energy into prevention.  Maybe not.  Even the experts didn’t see the financial crash of 2008 coming our way.

Of course I should trust God to work all things to good.  However, I am in for an ugly surprise if I take that to mean that he will keep me safe from all harm and exempt from all suffering.  I think  it is more a reassurance that no matter how bad things get, they will get better eventually.  Eventually is a pretty slippery word, but it is much better than never or maybe.

What am I afraid of?  Well, unfortunately, lots of things.  Way too many things.  And learning more about the world around me seems to open up even more opportunities to be afraid.  Clearly I need to devote adequate time to learn to effectively manage my fears.  I am asking God to help me.  I am making a real effort to use the brain he gave me to think through this stuff.  And I can see some choice irony  in being afraid that I am not doing enough to deal with fear.  So I think I will stop right here.

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