Fear This, Not That
In 2000, sociologist Barry Glassner published The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. An updated version is expected later this year. Glassner’s thesis is that American concerns about crime, drugs, child abuse, and other issues are not founded on data but are instead the product of the scaremongering tactics mass media outlets depend upon to attract and maintain viewership.
Negative stories capture more clicks, more eyeballs, and generate more conversation than do heroism and good deeds; our brains are biologically predisposed to focus attention and energy on threats. In 2017, Chapman University found that the corruption of government officials, the health care debate, and pollution of our oceans and lakes were foremost among American fears. This should come as no surprise. Consider the news cycle last year, which centered on alleged ties between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia, whether Congress would repeal and replace “Obamacare,” and, early in the year, government responses to the Keystone Pipeline protest along with shifts in environmental policy, such as the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords.
News has been around forever and fear has, too. So what has changed? Our level of exposure to negative storylines, and our proclivity to remain connected to our chosen sources of news throughout the day. In 2016, Neil Strauss of Rolling Stone observed, “It doesn’t help much that in the past few years, we have entered an even more extreme cycle of news omnipresence, which values shareability over accuracy. Instead of having to turn on the TV or radio to see what’s going on, the news comes to us. Between our phones and browsers, most of us are plugged into a nonstop feed of headlines and opinions that are responsive to our specific interests and fears.”
Consider this paragraph from Molly Ball of The Atlantic, who wrote in September 2016:
Fear is in the air, and fear is surging. Americans are more afraid today than they have been in a long time: Polls show majorities of Americans worried about being victims of terrorism and crime, numbers that have surged over the past year to highs not seen for more than a decade. Every week seems to bring a new large- or small-scale terrorist attack, at home or abroad. Mass shootings form a constant drumbeat. Protests have shut down large cities repeatedly, and some have turned violent. Overall crime rates may be down, but a sense of disorder is constant.
Ball’s column was titled, “Donald Trump and the Politics of Fear.” It was published two months before the presidential election.
Matters are not as bad as they seem, nor is everything rosy. The American economy is strong, despite the fact that many Americans are unhappy. Many Americans believe the crime rate is up; it has actually declined. Americans are living longer than ever before. The Golden State Warriors appear to have mastered offensive efficiency, and the 2016-17 squad may have been the greatest basketball team of all-time.
Wage and wealth inequality, child poverty, homelessness, and mass incarceration are among my foremost concerns. This research from 2011 notes these issues, and others. There are discouraging trends in baseball right now.
I am not immune to the anxieties and worries that trouble us, including concerns about our national politics, a decline in civility (which could also be seen as the diminishment of common ground coupled with an increase in polarization), and the prevalence of mistrust in our major institutions of government, education, and religion. I have listened to the concerns of older friends, who worry about the future for their grandchildren, and the concerns of younger friends, who worry about finding a good, satisfying job.
Philosopher Martha Nussbaum observes, “What is today’s fear about? Many Americans feel themselves powerless, out of control of their own lives. They fear for their own future and that of their loved ones. They fear that the American Dream—that hope that your children will flourish and do even better than you have done—has died, and everything is slipping away from them” (Nussbaum, The Monarchy of Fear, 1). I share those worries, to a degree.
Negativity, which is pervasive on social media, can be highly troublesome and even overwhelming. I have chosen to regulate my news intake by being on social media less and relying on the print edition of my local paper more. I watch very little television and zero network news. I listen to a handful of podcasts.
I have chosen select causes and issues that matter to me, foremost of which is strengthening my local church community through presence, service, and loving neighbors throughout my city. I have volunteered for a reading program in a local elementary school. I coach youth soccer. I teach Sunday school. While I continue to be aware of global and national trends and talking points, I find that I worry less, and enjoy life more, when I focus on the people who immediately surround me and how I can make their lives a little better through service.
How do I do this? The answer is found in my commitment to the Christian faith, which informs, inspires, and invigorates my philosophy of life by way of deep religious convictions. A single day does not pass in which the doctrines, beliefs, and practices of Christianity do not shape my moral reasoning, my discernment of information (which includes the news), my reactions in various circumstances, and my choices to think, feel, say, and do what is in accordance with the good, true, and beautiful. Granted, I do not succeed in every instance. When I fail, I ask God for forgiveness and strength, and I remember that God’s mercies are new each morning.
The Scriptures repeatedly admonish us: “Do not fear;” “Do not be afraid.” “Be courageous; be strong.” 1 John 4:18 tells us, “There is no fear in love.” Psalm 56:3 reminds us to trust God when we experience fear: “When I am afraid I trust in you.” Psalm 118:6 declares, “The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus’ final command to his disciplines includes a promise that he will always be with them, and that all authority, ultimately, is his.
There is a form of fear that leads to anxiety; there is another form that yields reverence. Not all fear is bad. Rather, it must be rightly placed. Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” and Proverbs 9:10 adds, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”
As a Christian, it is reverence for God, a holy, God-honoring fear, that enables me to face all my other fears. My anxieties can be released, for I am invited to cast all my cares on the Lord himself (1 Peter 5:17). I can seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, trust God to meet my everyday needs, and therefore put aside worry (Matthew 6:25-34). I can stand up for justice, trusting that even if my appeals fall on deaf ears, a day will come in which the Lord will judge every deed (Ecclesiastes 3:17).
In Philippians 4:4-7 Paul reminds us that the Lord is near, that we need not be anxious, that in every situation we can pray with thanksgiving, and that the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Through Jesus, we are assured of God’s love, and God’s perfect love casts out fear. Though “fear is in the air,” we possess a peace which passes all understanding, a peace which invites us to do what is good and right, to bring glory to the Almighty and Everlasting God.
Fear God, and we have nothing to fear.
Benjamin A. Simpson is a writer, spiritual director, Christian educator, and ordained Baptist minister in Woodway, Texas. Read his work at https://benjaminasimpson.com/ or follow him on Twitter: @bsimpson.