“Ultimately we know deeply that the other side of every fear is a freedom.”
~ Marilyn Ferguson (1938-2008)
I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1970s. It wasn’t Brooklyn’s finest decade. Drugs, gangs, vandalism and street-level violence were part of everyday life. As a youngster my daily fun included being robbed, chased and assaulted with primitive weapons (for example, knives, baseball bats and brass knuckles, although not all at once!). To get a sense of New York in those days, I recommend renting the movie Death Wish or the original Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, remade a few years ago with John Travolta as the lead bad guy.
Children learn to accept their daily experiences as normal, so we didn’t complain much. As a result, the adults in my youth were somewhat oblivious to the risks we confronted. I walked (round trip) about three miles to school. During the hours between 3 and 6 p.m., I could have been anywhere in a maze of 200 square city blocks, up to God knows what. Cell phones didn’t exist so there was no way to “check in.” Our parents (who were educated, responsible and intelligent) didn’t fret much, despite the growing awareness that crime and violence were spiraling out of control. When I said I was going out, that meant I could head off in any direction I chose and do anything I wanted, as long as it was not illegal. This might involve crossing busy highways, scaling and climbing over the diversity of broken urban terrain, picking up things that were rusted and filthy (including, for example, live ammo), investigating abandoned cars or houses, and taking the subways and buses to wherever they went, miles away from home.
Today, I live in a quiet and orderly Pennsylvania suburb with my wife and our four children, ages 9 to 17. It is the safest place I can imagine. In 15 years, I have never witnessed anything illegal, nor experienced even the slightest worry about crime or violence. Nevertheless, the adults in our community have scared our children to death. Our local public schools teach children how to avoid kidnappers, sexual predators and bullies. A recent seminar focused on avoiding cyber-stalkers, presenting the Internet as yet another terrible threat. Our children have absorbed the message that they live in an extremely dangerous world. It hit me one day when my son, then 11, didn’t want to walk alone to a neighborhood store several blocks away because “something might happen” on the way.
Given my childhood, this fear seemed preposterous. But upon reflection, I realized that I myself had acquired an irrational need to know exactly what my kids were doing at every hour of the day, and to know that they were always 100% safe. I had begun to feel uncomfortable that they would try to cross a four-lane road to go the ice cream store near where we live. An adult needed to help with that, right?
Some might say (including me) that I’ve become a paranoid nut, but frank conversations with other parents of my generation reveal the same underlying emotion: fear. We are worried to death that our children will be hurt out there in that awful, mean, cruel world. Indeed, having bragged about the safety of my neighborhood, I am now imagining that I will be struck down in some ghastly, random act of violence. It would serve me right for being so disrespectful of the dangers!
The modern media is at least in part responsible for our pervasive fear. The 24-hour video news cycle guarantees that the most hideous and despicable acts of mankind will not only make headlines in all their gory detail, but will also be morbidly enshrined in novels, movies and television shows. Today we have not only CSI Las Vegas, but also Miami and New York, so that serial killers and sociopaths can entertain all parts of the country.
And of course, there is 9/11, played, replayed, commemorated and serving as the backdrop for every serious conversation about national security. With 9/11 seared into the national consciousness, America today is not only home of the brave, but of the suspicious, worried and wary. Every day millions of travelers are reminded about the pervasive threat of death at the hands of terrorists masked as fellow citizens. That was the goal of the terrorists, right? To scare us.
But fear is also relative. In the 1970s, in the midst of the Cold War, each day we faced the prospect of total nuclear annihilation. At risk were not just our little lives, but all life on earth. The famous Flintstones cartoon featured a comic character from the future, the “Great Gazoo,” sent back to the Stone Age as punishment for inventing a switch that could obliterate the universe. Mutually assured destruction did have its perverse comforts. There was something oddly reassuring in the idea that if one of us would go, so would we all. And not just us, but also the dogs and the hummingbirds. We speculated that the roaches and rats would survive as mutants. Do you remember Charlton Heston’s final chilling line from Beneath the Planet of the Apes?
“In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe, lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.”
Somehow the prospect of our universe snapping out of existence puts all the small dangers we face in perspective. Compared with instantaneous extinction of all life, global warming and terror seem like manageable threats.
Mark Twain said that worry is paying interest on a debt you may not owe, a thought my grandmother repeated to me. Lately it seems that our post-Cold War, post-9/11 zeitgeist, with its dreaded mushroom clouds, dirty bombs and pandemics, teaming with bizarre serial killers stalking this No Country for Old Men, has produced a mountainous debt of paranoia, serviced at subprime interest rates of worry. The worry payments drain our spiritual capital reserves, pushing us to the brink of cultural and community bankruptcy, a state that leaves us with nothing but to cower inside our mini-fortresses, with our 2nd Amendment guns and duct tape, watching late-night cable-TV experts whining “what a world!” in front of spellbinding touchscreen displays.
Aristotle, perhaps the most famous philosopher of the subject, thought of courage as the rational mean between fear and confidence. In his view, the courageous were not fearless. On the contrary, they were fearful, but marshaled the inner strength to move forward in the face of it, confronting risk head-on when reason justified the cause.
Aristotle got it right. The courageous live fully despite fear and risk, not without it, recognizing that the quest for total security yields a terrible reward. Security’s prize costs us everything we cherish, because life’s greatest gifts””freedom, love, friendship, creative expression, adventure, the growth of the heart and mind””require vulnerability. As Tom Jones wrote poetically in The Fantasticks, “Without a hurt, the heart is hollow.” Seeking a full heart, the courageous brave a hurt.
Americans must recapture the true meaning of courage. True courage does not obsess about security. We who live in the “home of the brave” must not sacrifice freedom to avoid risk. Let your children cross the road by themselves. Let them get lost and explore the city and the frontier. Go to a “dangerous neighborhood” and strike up a conversation. Take the bus late at night and walk home in the shadows. Go to a foreign country and live with strange people who think differently and might hate you. Someone is probably going to get seriously hurt. But someone might also experience the thrill of actually living.