Thursday, April 5, 2018

Fear is the Mind-Killer

Last fall, nearly a year after the 2016 Presidential election, I wrote that Donald Trump is not the problem facing America today. A year earlier, I had written that America is dying as a nation. Sure, these were clickbait titles. But the basic point was the same: we are tearing ourselves apart as a nation. Trump is a symptom and an accelerant, but he is not the cause. Remove him from office tomorrow, and things will not get better.

A lot of people blame social media and the rise of "Fake News" - the stories that get circulated, the information bubbles that get created by Facebook's algorithms, the online tendency to interact primarily with people who agree with you (and to scream at those who don't). But technology isn't at fault, either. We're the ones who use it. In-groups and socially exclusive networks existed long before Mark Zuckerberg was even born. Bring down Facebook and Twitter tomorrow, and things will not get better either.

The problem is very much us - our behavior, our attitudes, our responses to the world around us. All of which are completely under our control. We can choose what information to receive, and what to believe. We can choose how we react, respond, or even reach out to, other people. We can choose to use kind words or harsh ones.

It might be closer to the truth to blame a host of elites - elected politicians and media infotainment figures. Politicians have found that it's very easy to mobilize people on the basis of fear. Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Glen Beck, and now Alex Jones make millions of dollars off of that fear. Make people afraid, and they will do what you want, vote the way you want, give you their money, buy your books and your guns and whatever else you're selling.

As many of my smarter friends have pointed out that this is a recipe for outbidding. Outbidding occurs when the next leader, the next figurehead, the next pundit comes along and takes away the spotlight by being more extreme than the last one. There's no clear end to this cycle, which leads to more and more extreme positions.

But while it's easy to blame the outbidders, it's still on us. We listen to them. We allow them into our homes, into our public discourse. We worry, we fret, we explain, we argue, we pontificate. And we fear.

Fear is powerful because it is the emotional response that drives behavior. We're not nearly as rational as we like to think. We don't think through our goals and issue positions, and then compare those to different parties and politicians, and then carefully select among the available options. We fear first, and that fear drives our perceptions, our judgments, and ultimately our actions.

But fear is also a choice. We are capable of accepting, or rejecting, fear. We aren't usually conscious of this choice - we usually feel that we have to fear, that we are forced to be afraid by the world around us. But we aren't. The world doesn't force us to feel a certain way about it. We choose that for ourselves.

The moment we understand this, everything changes. Conflicts - most of which are made up in our heads - evaporate. Problems don't go away, but they suddenly become fundamentally different problems. My "opponent" - someone perhaps still mired in fear - because not a monster to destroy, but a fellow person to be helped, if I can, and to be treated with as much kindness as possible even if I can't.

Decades ago, Frank Herbert wrote a fictional, fantastical science fiction world in which wisdom revolved around understanding a simple truth:
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
People think of sci-fi as escapism, but Herbert was fundamentally right. Fear kills our minds, and our hearts. Ultimately, it destroys us, both individually and (especially) collectively.

If you think that things aren't good, there is one thing you can do about it. Don't be afraid. And convince as many others as you can to do the same.

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