Think our culture of fear is something new? Think again.
As long as humans have recorded history–and I suspect since long before–we have lived in fear of legitimate danger. Fear is part of life, for good reason. The world around us is full of threats–none of them more threatening than our fellow humans.
Throughout the same course of history, we have also lain awake at night worrying over believable but unlikely scenarios, exaggerated threats, and dangers that are 100-percent imaginary. I’m willing to bet all of you are too young to remember when people were afraid of the very air they breathed. Or these urban legends from Victorian London. But you may remember the terror of sharks sparked by the movie Jaws. Some of you might even remember farther back, when our fear of shark attacks really started. Maybe you were around for the Red Scare in the 1950s. Or the one before that. You may remember the mass hysteria around accusations of Satanic child sexual abuse in daycare centers. Remember Y2K? How about last year’s claims of clown sightings in multiple places throughout North America? Or the last time these “phantom clowns” terrorized the population, or the time before that, or the time before that, or the time back in 1981?
Even in the information age, we have not grown past this tendency to fear things that aren’t real or aren’t as threatening or widespread as they seem. In fact, while it’s easier than ever to find real information, it’s also easier to find exaggerations, the infamous “fake news,” and blatant lies. And unfortunately, even the most skeptical among us can occasionally have a hard time telling the difference.
This is human nature. We are creative and imaginative beings, susceptible to flights of fancy. We are anxious creatures, with strong protective instincts and the ability to learn from others’ experiences. And these days we have access to more information than ever before, with a constant stream of claims we don’t always have the time or resources to investigate. We are aware of events that may be no more common–or may be even less common–now than they were in the past, and our knowledge elevates them to frequent and likely occurences.
But our culture of fear is manufactured as much as it is organic. Entire industries thrive on inflaming our fears. Simply put, the more fearful we are, the more money they make. Think about our news media. Writers and editors at even the most respectable publications are pressured to dabble in sensationalism and “clickbait” because it attracts subscribers, viewers, and pageviews for advertisers. Consider products designed to make our homes cleaner, which play on our fears of disease. Or political leaders, who appeal to our anxiety, then promise to keep us safe, so they can stay in power. When you and I give in without question, we pay the price to profit someone else. When we live in fear, we hurt ourselves and compromise our ability to live with purpose and intention. There’s no conspiracy here; this is human nature itself: fearful, greedy, gullible, mercenary.
Thank God there’s a cure for that.
In all existence, no one and nothing is more worthy of fear than God, the author of existence itself. Yet when we come to him, he does not inflame our fears but replaces them with his perfect love (1 John 4:16-18). He does not let us flounder in fear, but fills us with his Spirit, enabling us to live with power, love, and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7). How can we feel at home in a culture brimming with fear?
Let’s not. Instead, let’s be countercultural. Let’s accept our rational fears as necessary, reject our irrational fears as unfounded, and refuse to allow either to define our lives. Let’s acknowledge that fear never tells us the whole truth about anything. Let’s recognize just how truly unproductive worry is. And let’s ask ourselves who is making a buck off our emotional distress.
Remember, God is in control. That doesn’t mean horrible things won’t happen. It doesn’t mean we will have the life we want or we will never have a good reason for fear. but it does mean controlling the world is not our job. We cannot keep ourselves or our loved ones completely safe. Worrying doesn’t help. Seeking greater control over the world, and the people in it, will only end in frustration. Allowing fear to dictate our orientation toward life is tragic. I wrote a lot about this kind of tragedy in my book Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry.
So who is benefiting from your worry? It isn’t you, nor is it the people you love. When the prevailing cultural reaction is worry, I encourage you to choose the clear-headed approach of faith and trust in God, who is the only one capable of holding the whole world in his hands.
© 2017 Amy Simpson.