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Friday, June 16, 2006


This is my newspaper column for next week. I'm not crazy about it as I rushed a bit, but want to credit blogger Lindsay Lobe for some of the ideas that I pulled together.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines fear as: an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm. Some thinkers consider fear to be a useless emotion; others note its usefulness as a warning of potentially unpleasant situations or consequences.

Whether based on a real threat or not, fear is not only unpleasant – it immobilizes, tends to cancel productive thought processes and takes the place of creativity and intelligent actions. It can also deplete your immune functions and cause you to be sick.

Some, such as linguist and writer Naom Chomsky, say that we are living in a culture of fear – where feelings of fear and anxiety dominate our public discourse and relationships, changing how we relate to one another and how we behave as citizens. This is a relatively new phenomenon with potentially harmful implications. The argument is that the nature of the threats described in public discourse is out of all proportion to the real risks and harms entailed.

We may feel overwhelmed by media portrayals of one item after another which feed our fears. Media overkill destroys rational discussion of the issue being explored. A dramatic account of a single event, often caused by chance, turns into a national disaster, ready to happen again at any time and any place. We also may feel manipulated by politicians who have learned that they can turn our fears into voting preferences. Here are some examples to help you consider your own ‘fear factor’.

Think about your health…and review this list of words: obesity, tobacco, sunscreen, immunization, pandemic, antibiotic resistant, hip replacement, doctor shortage, West Nile, mad cow, flesh-eating disease and cholesterol. Are you afraid yet?

Now consider this: when my father was born in 1923, life expectancy from birth for a man in Canada was 59 years; when I was born in 1951 it was 66 years and today it’s just over 77 years (it’s higher for a woman in each example). While I need to attend to my health, I might pay attention to being more grateful for clean water, plenty of good food, safe working conditions, basic health care services, a civil society and affluence beyond reason (relatively).

Are you worried about armed conflict in the world today? Me too, but did you know that since 1995 there has been a decline in both the number of armed conflicts – and in the number of resulting deaths?

Do we need to get tough on criminals? Maybe, but according to Stats Canada, our national homicide rate hit a 36 year low in 2003 (it’s gone up slightly since). The overall crime rate has generally been falling in Canada since 1991, when it peaked. The crime rate in 2004 was 12% lower than in 1994.

Living in a culture of fear goes beyond a pervasive sense of anxiety. Fear will also immobilize me in tackling real problems. I can worry about a tic biting and infecting me if I must, but doing my small part to use less gas or write a letter for human rights is probably a better use of time.

It’s all about balance. I can avoid the saturation of an often-irresponsible popular media; this means the will to hit the OFF button. I can also seek alternate sources of information that offer broad perspectives, real evidence and debate and dialogue.

Finding the inner balance and remaining positive in life, while still acting responsibly, is an individual experience. For Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, it was finding time to play with children – almost every day. Albert Einstein said that he needed solitude to remain positive and that the most beautiful experience was the mysterious.

These are two wise men: I think I’ll play with children when I can, seek solitude daily and be open to the mysterious. Meanwhile, I’ll turn off the television, gaze at the beauty of nature that surrounds me - and not be afraid.

I notice it especially with the kids.

They've been given a little more freedom this year. Even Elcie goes to her friend's house and the store by herself (in the wheelchair with a cellphone).

The girls are outside most of the day.

Am I afraid? Of course to some extent but I can't turn them into prisoners.

They've been taught to be careful and they deserve to have some fun.
I've always tried to go with the odds. Not afraid of flying, or carjacking, but I know enough to be afraid (or at least aware) of being hit by a coal truck. Then after my husband died, I got to where I'm not afraid of dying, so I'm not afraid of much of anything. My kids are awed. They once asked me if I'm afraid of anything (after I once again rescued them from a spider). I thought about it, and told them honestly, I'm afraid my kids will run out in the street and be hit by a car. Thats going with the odds. Its also one thing I have a hard time controlling. But telling them that may make them a bit more cautious.
That's a great article! It makes so much sense to take precautions against what we can actually do something about, and let the rest go. I know so many people whose lives are hedged all around by "can't do this, because that might happen....", and they're in even more a prison than I am with all my restrictions.
you remind me of one of my favourite readings on fear - its by Ruth Gendler, in 'The Book of Qualities' (exceptional read)


"Fear has a large shadow, but he himself is quite small. He has a vivid imagination. He composes horror music in the middle of the night. He is not very social and keeps to himself at political meetings. His past is a mystery. He warmed us not to talk to each other about him, adding that there is nowhere any of us could go where he wouldn't hear us. We were quiet. When we began to talk to each other, he changed. His manners started to seem pompous, and his snarling voice sounded reheared.
Two dragons guard Fear's mansion. One is ceramic and Chinese. The other is real. If you make it past the dragons and speak to him close up, it is amazing to see how fragile he is. He will try to tell you stories. Be aware. He is a master of disguises and illusions. He almost convineced me that he was a puppetmaker and I was a marionette.
Speak out boldly, look him in the eye, startle him. Don't give up. Win his respect, and he will never bother you with small matters."

Thank goodness Einstein left Europe in 1932.
Granny - that's a good approach with kids...'care, but have fun.'

Miss Cellania - you're a good woman and strong too I think.

Madcap - thanks.

Calooh - thanks for the Gendler excerpt - great metaphor for fear.

Bohemian - Amen to that!
Wonderful article Gary that skilfully captures all of the essentials.
best wishes
Once again, I'm reminded of Bowling for Columbine. As you well know, this is a big issue in the U.S. The government, the media, my mother...they all play on our fears. Well, my mother probably doesn't play on everybody's fears, but she watches those shows like Primetime Scareyourpantsoff with Blonde Anchor Woman and always has some grisly tale to tell. Drives me nuts. Like some of your earlier commenters, I don't fear for myself so much as for my kids. I feel very vulnerable when it comes to them.
Oh, and I alluded to the fear thing in my most recent post. Synchronicity?
well I'm not convinced about immobilization, Gary. my girls never move so fast when there's a spider in their room! ;o)

yet they enjoy late night horror films. I do think as a species we actually seek to be afraid - maybe we lead boring lives in this century, maybe it's a genetic kick back that needs tickling now and then.

It's a big subject but you've given us a taster, food for thought. and very well written as usual, no fear of that.
Hi gary,
A very well written article!
Let me tell you the meaning of my name Abhay is associated with your article as it means Fearless. I think that fear is the root cause of many problems humanity faces today...one of India's very well known poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore writes in Gitanjali..
Where the mind is without fear
And head is held high
.....into that heaven of freedom let my country awake!
A world without fear would be a world of enlightenment.
A very timely article!
Your weekly articles are always an inspiration Gary, no matter how well or bad you personally think they are written!

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