It’s a multibillion-dollar industry. It fuels the internet. It dominates political campaigns, podcasts and AM radio, and the evening news. It sits on therapists couches and speaks on social media feeds. No respecter of persons, it steals sleep from feeble beggars and mighty kings, from the CEOs in their midtown penthouses to the unemployed mother-of-three in her two bedroom apartment. It is the great equalizer, and has stood the test of time.
What is this pervasive, inescapable, suffocating phenomenon?
Human beings have always been scaredy-cats. That observation is not surprising. It has helped us evolve and thrive throughout the centuries. But it has also held us back and divided us racially, religiously and politically, leading to millions of deaths and economic destruction and irreversible scars that have lasted generations.
What is surprising is that even we — evolved “modern” people — are so scared.
On paper, we should have fewer fears than any generation before us. We’re surrounded by security systems, advanced medicine, organic food, and endless information on a glowing rectangle in our pockets. Many of us live in nations with large, centralized governments that promise to protect us. We have health codes and social welfare (well, at least some of us) and educational systems that train the next generation better than the previous ones. We live in the greatest era human beings have ever lived in.
Yet we are deeply, miserably afraid. Far from loosening the chokehold of fear, the material blessings and comfort of our age seem to have only tightened it.
The achievements of modern life — in medicine, in technology, in the marketplace — have given us an ever-increasing sense of control. Actually, more than a sense. We really do enjoy more control over more aspects of life than ever before. We’re so accustomed to a convenient, custom-designed, there’s-an-easy-to-use-app-for-that quality of life that we’re more shocked when things are hard than when they’re easy.
Without realizing it, this increasing sense of control can begin to feel natural, intuitive, right. Not a gift, mind you — a right. And we start to believe that if we can simply manage our fears, they will never master us.
We are wrong, and we are immeasurably miserable.
But it’s even worse. Addicted to what we can control, we extend the borders of our kingdoms into realms we can’t control. We try to control circumstances, but trials and tribulations rudely show up uninvited. We try to control people, but they don’t stick to our well-intentioned and wonderful plans for their lives.
In recent decades, as modernity has given birth to postmodernity, our culture’s reigning authorities have shifted, with the sovereignty of science bowing to the sovereignty of the self.
Of course, the sovereign self isn’t a new player on history’s stage. Nevertheless, there is something genuinely new about our cultural moment in 2020. Fifty years ago, if you asked your neighbor where to find truth, he likely would’ve pointed you to science. Ask the question today, and he’ll point you to . . . you.
Believe in yourself. Be true to yourself. Follow your heart.
From college seminars to modern cinema, the “religion” of expressive and unapologetic individualism has dominated the Western world. I’m not sure if René Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”) would be proud, but DNA tests show that he’s the father of this philosophy.
What does all this have to do with our fears? Much in every way, as the Biblical Apostle Paul might say. If you really are “the master of your fate and the captain of your soul,” then everything is riding on you. Don’t crash.
Except now we are crashing, and we can’t control it. We are shuttered into our homes, crippled by a raging pandemic that threatens to upend the entire globe and impose Great Depression-levels of unemployment and recessionary conditions. Our favorite sports have been sidelined, our restaurants and bars are closed for the foreseeable future. Our entire way of life is being threatened, and our sense of security has evaporated.
This is a defining moment in the history of humanity. Much like the Renaissance or the post-War era, this period of time will change our perception of where we stand in the cosmos and shift our relationships with truth, science, faith and ourselves.
We had more stuff than ever — and therefore more than ever to lose — and promoted ourselves to a position for which we were embarrassingly underqualified.
That job description included omnicompetence, and we were arrogant enough to think we’d be a good fit. So we spent our days playing God, trying to learn how to sail while steering the ship.
And now the ship is grounded, and the water is leaking through. Once this is over, humanity will reset. Our worldview will change. Our perspective as a collective people will have been shattered and rearranged.
We had everything, and now we don’t. We created lives that were supposed to be the vaccine to discomfort and trouble, and now that bubble has been burst.
In a 2005 commencement address to the graduating class at Kenyon College, the late great American novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace perfectly captured the issue of our misplaced sense of control and self-belief.
“The compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never feel you have enough. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. Worship power and you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need even more power over others to numb your own fear. Worship your intellect, and you will end up feeling like a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is… they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”
We put our faith in material, destructible, disprovable things and tricked ourselves into assuming we were in control.
No wonder we are so afraid.