by John Zielinski
You’re sitting on your porch or patio and looking at the lawn. You notice a rabbit. It’s sitting statue still, but you’ve got the feeling that it’s aware of you watching. Every once in a while, there’s a twitch of the nose as it sniffs the air or the ears rotate slightly to localize a sound that’s been heard. Suddenly, you cough or sneeze and the rabbit takes off at top speed in a direction opposite to yours. Up until that point the animal was acquiring data about its surroundings and the various threats that there may be. The sudden noise that you made threw a switch that scared it from data acquisition mode into decisive action mode. You knew that you weren’t planning to harm the rabbit, but the rabbit didn’t. You’ve observed the concrete result of fear.
A lot has been written on the subject of fear. About the only thing on which everyone seems to agree is that fear is a deeply seated characteristic in human beings and, as with other species, it seems to have evolved to promote survival of the species as well as survival of the individual. Everyone is afraid of something and some people are afraid of a lot of things.
It turns out that each of us is probably afraid of more than we realize. Nearly everyone, it seems, is afraid of dying. This leads to related fears of things that can cause death. Other fairly common fears are related to personal well-being. These are things like the fear of being poor and the fear of being homeless. Some people are afraid of being alone or abandoned. Then there are fears that are particularly fuzzy and can lead people to do extreme things without understanding why. These are the fears that can be difficult to articulate.
There are people who understand the use of fear to manipulate behavior. Some parents in previous times were masters of this. Some may still be today. Consider the bogeyman.
A bogeyman is a mythical being. It has no commonly agreed upon appearance or powers. One source says that the bogeyman “is simply a non-specific embodiment of terror.” Perhaps it’s the non-specific nature that induces fear. If you don’t know what it looks like or what it can do, how can you protect yourself from it? The common, critical “fact” about the bogeyman, though, is that if a child misbehaves the bogeyman will “get them.” What, exactly, “get” means in this context is undefined. That may contribute to the fear. Of course, once we grow up the bogeyman stops being a source of fear – or does it?
There are those in this world who have replaced the bogeyman with more specific agents of fear. The thread that ties them to the bogeyman, however, is that their “threat” is non-specific. In many cases this replacement is The Other.
The Other is not one of us. He or she is different, and this difference itself is the threat to us and what we cherish. He speaks a different language that I don’t understand. He comes from a place about which all I know is rumors and those are usually bad. He belongs to a religion that’s different from mine, performs different rituals and celebrates different holidays (holy days). He doesn’t look like me or dress like me. He doesn’t think that the things I believe are bad are bad. Any one of these may cause fear. As a group, they amplify each other. The question is, “Why?”
Those who want us to be afraid of The Other will offer a variety of things that this entity may do. The Other may take things from you, force you to speak its language, force you to adhere to its religion, separate you from your family and imprison you. The Other may even kill you. People are willing to believe this because history tells us that it has happened in both the distant and the recent past. History also tells us that it’s sometimes been our country, our ancestors, our religion and even ourselves who’ve done this. We have been The Other. We’re afraid that someone will do to us what we, collectively, have done to those who were different from us. We’re not sure how that could happen when the number of The Other is so much smaller than the number of us, but they just might “get” us and that scares the hell out of some people.
Just like the bogeyman, The Other strikes fear into a person because the actual threat is non-specific. In reality, the threat may be non-existent. How are you to know? Maybe you should take a cue from the rabbit and do some data acquisition.
- Take some time to travel to a place that you’ve never been, but where The Other may live. For some that can be a trip as short as visiting downtown Chicago from a nearby rural area. For others it may require visiting another state or even another country.
- If you’re monolingual, learn at least the basics of another language. You may be surprised to find that language influences the way you think. Coupling this with travel can be especially enlightening.
- Spend a little time reading about and talking with members of a religion different from your own. You may be surprised to learn that what you thought were differing tenets are actually not very different at all. You may also be surprised to learn that the other religion traces its origin to the same point as yours as is the case with the major Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
- Take some time to seriously consider why you feel that granting a right that you’ve always enjoyed (such as the freedom to marry the person of your choice) to a group other than the one to which you belong lessens your own freedom if it puts no restrictions on your choices.
All of these things provide data that your rational mind can use as a defense against non-specific fears. They can shine light into the darkness that leads to irrational fear.
Whether someone uses the bogeyman or The Other to try to scare you, what they’re doing is trying to manipulate your behavior. They’re not looking out for your best interests. Their looking out for their own. If you allow yourself to be afraid without a rational basis for your fear, you’re giving up your freedom. You’re letting someone else control you whether you know it or not.
The next time that someone tries to scare you with the bogeyman try staring it in the face and ask, “Why should I be afraid?” You may find out that you shouldn’t.