Fear Itself

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Fear is always with us, says Rita in her latest dispatch from the States, and sometimes it’s justified…

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words are among the most well known American sound bites of the 20th century. They are often interpreted as reflecting a simpler time when the lines of conflict were clear, the enemy readily identified, and the people eager to rally around the national cause. But it is an oversimplification to assume the past was always simpler than our own time. It just seems that way as the complications and confusions recede in the rear view mirror until only the simple outlines remain. In reality Roosevelt spoke those words precisely because there was a great deal of fear. He needed to dispel it quickly and draw the nation with him into the great enterprise of war.

Times change, but fear of one kind or another is always with us. Fear on the apocalyptic scale: will global warming change life on earth as we know it? Will the Ebola virus spread beyond Africa wiping out vast swathes of humanity like the medieval Black Death? And fear on a personal scale: is that lump in my breast cancer? Will my plane crash? Will my grandson fall off the jungle gym and suffer a brain injury? Our fears may swell to outsize proportions in our imagination, but they are firmly rooted in personal experience, the reality of the world around us, and the flow of information in our media saturated environment.

I don’t remember being afraid of much when I was young. Except for spiders and a particularly venomous nun at my convent school. I was quite daring and did a lot of adventurous, perhaps foolish, things. But now my family considers me a chronic worrier and I suppose it’s true. I do have a vivid imagination and can see awful things happening as though I am watching a movie. It all started when I became a parent and it’s worse now I’m a grandmother. Fear is more intense when you feel helpless to protect your children and grandchildren from life’s vicissitudes. When my family suggests that my fears are groundless or exaggerated my defense is that they spring from things I’ve experienced, or witnessed, or read about. I don’t worry that aliens will capture my grandchildren, but I do worry that they may drown in a swimming pool, a leading cause of death among small children. I am a well-informed worrier.

So, yes, I worry about drowning. I know someone who lost her small son because the person who was supposed to watch him at the pool didn’t watch him.

I worry that my grandsons may suffer a concussion playing sports or falling in the playground or hiking on a rocky trail. The news is full of reports recently about how common these injuries are.

I worry about plane crashes. On my first visit to the U.S. my plane out of New York suffered decompression and we had to make an emergency landing. But only after circling low over the Atlantic for two hours to dump enough fuel to make us light enough to land. It was a very long two hours with the waves beckoning from just a few feet below.

Of course I worry about car crashes too, especially the catastrophic ones that make headlines when whole families are wiped out. When my grandchildren go on a long car trip I can only breath easy again when I hear they arrived safely.

I worry that one of the huge oak trees in my grandsons’ back yard will be struck by lightning and fall onto the house, perhaps making a direct hit on their playroom or bedrooms. Thunderstorms are a common occurrence in Washington summers and the local news often features dramatic film of uprooted trees with crushed roofs beneath them.

I worry that one of my grandsons will get sick and an incompetent doctor will ignore the symptoms. My son died at age 23 because an emergency room doctor sent him home when he actually had a life-threatening condition that could have been easily treated. Yes this can happen in the supposedly most advanced country in the world. (In 2000 the World Health Organization ranked the U.S. number 38 out of 191 nations in overall quality of health care, behind countries like Colombia and Morocco; the U.K. ranked number 18. In 2014 the Commonwealth Fund health report ranked the U.S. last of 11 developed nations with the U.K. in first place).

Then there is that peculiarly American fear, gun violence. In the year after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting 100 children were killed in gun accidents. An American child is more likely to die from a gunshot than from cancer. None of our family own guns, but I worry that my grandsons may go to play at a home with unsecured guns. Curious children playing with a gun they find, often thinking it is a toy, is a far more common cause of death than the heavily publicized mass shootings.

My fears are earned, by a lifetime of experience.

So there is another peculiarly American fear, shared by millions of parents and grandparents, which I am spared. I do not worry that a police officer or self-appointed vigilante may shoot my grandsons. You see, my grandsons are white. This is America in 2014. The inequality of fear itself.

Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.

6 thoughts on “Fear Itself

    • If it wasn’t for the fact that it’s pretty grim, I would have said that story’s a spoof. A shooting range called called Bullets and Burgers? That sounds like the name of a joke business in the GTA video games.

      http://bulletsandburgers.com/

  1. It would be a fairly simple matter to show that most of your fears are statistically remote (likewise black fears of vigilantes) and much less likely to occur than in bygone days. In fact, it’s been done. If you listened to these sages, you would learn that you have been “hard-wired” by evolution to “prioritise anecdotal evidence”, but with effort you could trump all that and see reality as clearly as they. Try not to take too long, because their patience is limited.

    As for me, I’m married to a chronic worrier who steadfastly deflects all encouragement to get in touch with her inner rationalist. I suspect this might have something to do with your being a devoted mother and grandmother who has known personal tragedy and that you have indeed earned your fears. I also suspect you have a very special relationship with children.

  2. Roosevelt’s “fear itself” remark was not intended to “draw the nation with him into the great enterprise of war.” It was part his first inaugural address, March, 1933. The crisis the country was facing was the Great Depression. The remark was intended to dispel a loss of confidence in the economy and assure the country that recovery was possible.

  3. Then there is that peculiarly American fear, gun violence. In the year after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting 100 children were killed in gun accidents. An American child is more likely to die from a gunshot than from cancer.

    But less likely than drowning.