It starts when you’re always afraid

beware of hobgoblins

REMINDER: The 99-cents introductory price on Refuse to Be Afraid: Tenth Anniversary Edition ends after today. (The print-on-demand price is the print-on-demand price.)

’Tis surprising to see how rapidly a panic will sometimes run through a country.

Thomas Paine

No doubt you’re afraid of something, or you wouldn’t be reading this book.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’m scared, too. We all live with fear, ranging from little anxieties to sheer, stark-raving-mad, paralyzing terror, and everything in between. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of getting started, fear of being stopped before we’re finished, fear of what to do next after we’re finished. Fear of hate, fear of love, fear of hating, fear of being loved. Fear of sickness, fear of health, fear of other people’s habits, fear of our own.

Fear of death.

A portion of this book is necessarily about politics. So many people have found a sure way to get elected is to make voters afraid of something — or someone.

We’ve come a long way from “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Turns out Franklin Roosevelt, who was so wrong about so many things, had that one thing right: Nothing can stop us as dead in the water as cold, stark fear.

From the amount of fear flying through the air on a daily basis, it seems a lot of people have figured out what a great motivator fear can be. Every action our government takes seems to be based on making you afraid and then giving you a false sense of security by tightening your chains. Many businesses thrive on making you afraid of something, then selling you escape or protection.

We are constantly reminded that terrorists would like to do worse things to us than simply fly airliners into crowded buildings — we’re told they have suitcase bombs, poison gas and all sorts of other horrors waiting in store for us.

And once we’re good and scared, we don’t mind having cameras everywhere and screeners feeling us up when we want to enter public places.

After Katrina, we were afraid of hurricanes, but we were told “never fear,” because Homeland Security and FEMA were given billions of dollars to shield us from the impact of the next big wind. Storm troopers on every corner in New Orleans made people feel so safe that there was talk of sending in the military to enforce quarantines on the odd chance that avian flu mutates into a strain that affects humans, not just birds.

We’re afraid that children will be molested, so we repeal the double-jeopardy law for “sexual predators” and keep them locked up after their prison terms expire. We’re afraid of pain, so we put warning labels on everything that could possibly hurt us. We’re afraid of cancer, so we verbally abuse anyone who smokes near us and get the city council, the state legislature and anyone who’ll listen to ban smoking.

Fear sells, and if paranoia strikes deep enough, fear enslaves. That might not be heartburn, it might be acid reflux disease, but don’t worry, here’s a pill. Good Lord, what if something terrible happens to you while you’re driving? Never fear, we can sell you a cellphone with global positioning capability so people can find you wherever you may stray. What if the next terrorist, the next hurricane, or the next flu bug were to attack you? Never fear, we have troops at the ready to disarm you, oops, that is to say, ready to protect you.

As this book heads to press, the United States is waist-deep in an election campaign. As in all other political campaigns, it seems, the issues are our fears. One side plays on our fear of being unable to make ends meet, of living from paycheck to paycheck, and the terror of what might happen if the paychecks stop coming, of what might happen to our loved ones if anything were to happen to us. Another side plays on our fear of those terrorists, of the people with different faces and/or religions who want to destroy our way of life. Both sides promise that if we will turn responsibility for our personal protection over to them, we will be safe and secure.

Also in the news as this book headed to press, a deep economic downturn was playing on fears in a palpable way. Millions of people were without work, and job security felt like a quaint old notion of days gone by.

It seems like the one constant in life, especially as described by those who want a piece of us: There’s always something to be scared of.

There’s really only one place where you’re totally secure: A jail cell. Surrounded by four walls with barred doors and windows, you can’t be hurt. (We’ll set aside your fear of earthquakes for the moment.) Government leaders who promise you safety from outside influences can only deliver by caging you – by stripping your liberty away, either one freedom at a time or all at once.

Benjamin Franklin was right, presuming he really said these words attributed to him: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” President Franklin Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address. What does that mean, in the end? It sounds good in a speech, but where was he going with it? Roosevelt himself manipulated fear of economic hard times into a redesign of the U.S. government, creating a taxpayer-financed safety net against another Depression. He trained generations to expect government, not business or individual initiative, to be the engine of the economy, changing the very structure of America.

It was a classic political bait and switch — he told people not to be afraid, then used their fears as a means to his political ends. That’s a perfect example of why the only thing we have to fear is indeed fear itself: Fear makes us susceptible to manipulation. Even politicians who urge us not to be afraid may be playing on our fears to forward their agendas.

We must refuse to be afraid, or rather, we must be on guard when we are afraid so that we are not deceived into actions we regret later.

And what is it, in the end that we are afraid of? Ultimately, we are afraid of death. No matter what our “quality of life,” to use a well-worn term, we don’t want to be not-alive.

We are afraid of dying, but you know what? Everybody does it. Nobody wants to die before “our time,” but there are fates worse than death. One such fate is being afraid to live. Another is making security a higher priority than freedom.

You have no guarantee that you’ll take another breath, no guarantee that when you woke up this morning you would see the sunset tonight. Don’t be afraid of that thought; instead, let it liberate you and motivate you to live as fully as you can – and don’t surrender your liberty for a false sense of safety.

The book is called Refuse to be Afraid, but you’re not human if you’re not afraid from time to time. What I hope to encourage you to do is to keep your fear at bay. Don’t let it control your thoughts and actions.

I’ve been writing about Big Fears, the fears that lead to airport checkpoints and surveillance cameras and sometimes even to wars, but little fears make us miserable, too. We don’t speak out for something we believe in, because we’re afraid of the repercussions. We don’t ask that attractive person for a date, because we’re afraid of being turned down. We don’t start writing the Great American Novel or quit our jobs and start that business we really want to start – because we’re afraid it won’t work out. Worse, we’re afraid of the changes success will bring in our lives.

When I say, “Refuse to be afraid,” I’m not telling you to deny that anxious little feeling or that paralyzing terror. The fear is real. I’m just suggesting that the thing that terrifies you can’t possibly be as awful as the paralysis. And yielding control of your life, i.e., your freedom, is likely to produce scarier results than an environment where everyone is free.

Would you rather be safe or free? Too many today would rather be safe, and wily people understand that, tempting us to give up just a little more freedom to be safe.

The New Hampshire license plate says it all: Live free or die. Without freedom, we are the living dead anyway.

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