This would be easier to simply laugh off if it were a once-every-four-years carnival that nobody took too seriously. But many of us do take it seriously. And unless we want to become media-free hermits every Leap Year, the rest of us get exposed to a pretty constant stream of fear-mongering. That stream effects us - our mood, our relationships with each other, our outlook on the world.
Our inability to remember the past doesn't help. In every campaign, there are people shrieking about how Our Civilization will come to an end if the Other Guy gets (re)elected. Amazingly enough, our civilization is still here - still less than perfect, and still with plenty of problems (which, we are assured, we will always have with us) - even though somebody's Other Guy won. Nobody moves to Canada. Yet four years later, we forget and start shrieking again.
The notion that the Tidal Wave of Fear comes only once every four years is also a fantasy. What used to be called "off-year" Congressional races are now run with the same kind of national manic fervor as Presidential races. And to fill in all the gaps, Madison Avenue and news outlets have made fear a 24/7 seller. Not all products are sold this way, of course - but the debasement of what used to be "journalism" to the cycle of constant crisis has been a sad sight for those of us who remember more sober newscasts in the distant past.
Our fixation on fear, whether in politics, the economy, society, or our own personal lives, comes in ways large and small. Political and media organizations alike have spent decades figuring out how to get fear under our skin, without our noticing. Chuck Norris is notable only for being honest, and clumsy. We tend to ignore the screamers, at least those screaming for the other side.
But when all we hear is screaming, we start to become deaf. In particular, we become deaf to the vast, broad, complex tapestry of the real world. In reality, our communities are filled with joy, hope, love, hate, anger, triumph, and despair. When all we hear is fear, we miss everything else - in particular, everything that gives life value and meaning. No one gets up in the morning excited to be afraid.
We sometimes see broad patterns that should concern us - real injustice, unnecessary conflict. But we are terrible about predicting the future. Fear blinds us not only to reality, but to our own ignorance. When we are afraid, we grasp at straws and become convinced that if we just do this one thing - vote for the right candidate, buy the right product, watch the right news program, sign the right petition - maybe things will work out OK. But then there's always the next thing to be afraid of.
The real damage of fear is to shift our focus to the wrong things. C.S. Lewis put it brilliantly in the Screwtape Letters:
He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.Lewis' devils are on very much the same page as the modern political campaign, the modern advertiser, and the modern media outlet. We spend our time thinking about things far beyond our control, instead of focusing on what is around us - what we can impact, which is where our real responsibility lies.
And herein lies our great and only defense. Fear is, indeed, a choice. We choose to listen to the screamers (and to echo their screams), we choose to think about things we can't control, we choose to ignore or neglect the things around us which we can and should be doing. Or we choose to ignore the fear-mongers and invented phantoms, to seek our own peace and to concentrate on what we can do. I choose - or try to choose - not to be afraid. What else is there to do?