Sometimes, fear outlives its usefulness
If I had to guess, I’d say that fear probably is the oldest human emotion. And not only does fear sell, but these days, a lot of folks are buying.
Back in the day, fear had its uses. If you were sitting in front of your cave barbecuing a mastodon and a saber-tooth tiger strolled up, that fear kept you from getting eaten. You either ran off (that would be me) or grabbed your club.
But these days, fear has become just another hustle. It seems like every other commercial is trying to scare you into buying something (if it’s not trying to seduce you; sex is the other thing that sells).
One of the reasons the country is in such a mess is that people are afraid, and some of that is understandable. Were I an autoworker, for example, I’d have real concerns about how long I’d have a job. I have a friend at a major metropolitan paper that faces the threat of a buyout by a company notorious for buying newspapers and laying waste to their newsrooms.
But sometimes the fear is submerged so deeply it’s all but unrecognizable. And the more it’s submerged, the more irrational it can become.
It’s gotten to the point that people fear things long past the point that fear can be useful.
Many of those who yearn to “make America great again” are, I think, simply afraid of change — even change that’s already happened and can’t be reversed.
But still, they yearn for a past that never existed, or if it did, didn’t exist for everybody. And their fear that it may never come back makes them a mark for anybody who can promise to bring back those halcyon days.
I once took a Japanese girl to “American Graffiti” to teach her what life was like for an American high-school student, for me. But going back even further into my youth, I lived in “The Wonder Years.” I always loved that show, because it could’ve been about me. Mine was a childhood of bike riding, playing army, running around suburban streets until the summer sun set, and sometimes later if we had a camp-out in my friend Steve’s yard.
I grew up in a working-class, white Minneapolis suburb. It was safe, and we all were alike. We were so white, in fact, that the entire time I went to public school, there was one black student in the entire district when I was in junior high, and she was only there about a year. We had some southeast Asian students — war refugees — but not many.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been back there, but things have changed. It’s now a multi-ethnic town, full of people from all over the world.
The Wonder Years, at least any that I would recognize, are long gone.
And I can understand the yearning that curdles into fear. Mine was an idyllic childhood. Dad took me with him on his Saturday errands; Mom often had milk and cookies waiting for me after school.
My hometown now is a soup of multicultural families. Immaculate Conception, where I sat through many a Mass, used to be the biggest parish in the Twin Cities, but the last time I was back, the pews were maybe half-full, if that; many of the faces I saw every Sunday were now etched with a lifetime’s lines, if they even were still there.
And yeah, it’s a little scary. It’s frightening to realize that my childhood was written in disappearing ink.
But that’s life. The world I grew up in is never coming back. It was the result of unique circumstances in American history, when the country was still flush with post-World War II optimism and cash, and people who weren’t like us lived elsewhere and we didn’t see them, much less talk to them.
What people who so fear the changes in this country don’t understand is that we are much better for them. Had I grown up with more than one brief experience with a black person, I might better understand the racism that has bubbled to the surface in the last couple of years. Had I eaten more strange food, it might have been an opportunity to meet people who would have enriched my life. I’ve been fortunate to have many such experiences as an adult, because I actively sought them out. Still, I wonder how different I’d be had it happened when I was younger.
One thing I learned from a year of living overseas is that while it’s nice to believe everybody’s the same, people are different. Everybody wants to be happy, but what makes people happy in different cultures varies greatly. There are things that would make a Japanese person happy that would drive an American barking mad.
But even if people different from you are made happy by different things, it’s not a zero-sum game. Their contentment will not reduce yours, despite what the fear merchants tell you. Your discontent can hurt other people when you insist they live by your standards.
In the end, I try to live my life in accordance with a statement from that great philosopher, Jimmy Durante, who once said, “Why doesn’t everybody just leave everybody else the hell alone?”
It’s a good question, and it might be the key to beginning our recovery from fear.
Tom Pantera is the news editor at the Wauneta Breeze. He has a passion for storytelling, obscure trivia and family. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org