Resetting the worry alarm

Fear is more likely to move trouble from one burner to another than to turn down the flame.


We can worry ourselves to death. Or we can reset the alarms that trigger such worry—not to lower our sensitivity to the point that we place ourselves at risk, just enough that we aren't terrified for no good reason. It's one thing to set off an airport security alarm because we forgot to take a crumpled gum wrapper out of our pocket, but when our inner security systems are this jumpy, they go off just as needlessly.

Whether sparked by legitimate fright or arising on its own in the mind's creative department, worry is contagious. With respect to the ongoing, amorphous terrorist threat, I certainly sense that contagion in New York City. We fulfill every terrorist's fondest dream when we compound the terror that might actually be inflicted by placing into the terrorist's hands the weapon of our own imagination.

Another act of terror could strike the city, of course. Yet, even if the incidence of terrorism in the United States should quadruple from its average over the past ten years (including 9/11), our risk of dying from anthrax, smallpox, suicide bombings, and hijackings combined will remain far lower than the odds of our being killed by a car while walking across the street.

After 9/11, several parishioners came in to discuss their heightened worry about living in New York, a completely reasonable concern (or so it seemed at the time). Everyone's anxiety had ratcheted up a notch. Orange Alert expressed not only an official state of readiness but also, for many, a personal state of mind.

The problem with worry is that its object casts a shadow that blocks out all other considerations. So I asked them a question or two. Had they considered that New York is now freer of violent crime than most other large cities in the country? Or that our teenage children are safer from car accidents than are teenagers elsewhere, since they don't need cars? Had they weighed the danger of driving to wherever they might consider moving—Maine or Oregon, perhaps? It could be as dangerous as living for quite some time under Orange Alert.

Fear is more likely to move trouble from one burner to another than to turn down the flame. The changes we make in our lives because we are inspired by something positive are much more likely to prove successful. Besides, wherever we manage to escape to, we must bring the cause of most of our troubles—ourselves—with us. Not to mention that safety is an illusion. The worries we leave behind will be replaced by new, unforeseen worries. Wherever we live and no matter how carefully, disaster is fickle. It has no respect for places or persons.

I received a call from one woman in my flock whom I thought had reached the breaking point between staying in New York and keeping her sanity. When she told me, a little breathlessly, that she had decided to remain in the city, there was a lightness in her voice that I hadn't heard for a long time. The clincher, it turned out, was a phone call from the Midwest. She had just finished talking with a close friend who had fled Manhattan for a sleepy town in Kansas. If any place was secure from terrorism, this was it. The night before, twisters had decimated Main Street and residential areas less than a mile from his new home.

“I'm feeling a little better about New York,” she said with a laugh.

“If you begin to waver,” I replied, “I have this great book about Los Angeles. It's filled with every imaginable natural and unnatural disaster—earthquakes, brush fires, mudslides, and even drive-by shootings. You'll absolutely love it.”

In ethics, the golden mean for correct behavior falls equidistant between extremes, the right amount of any given quality perceived as ethically superior to too little or too much. Generosity, for instance, is the golden mean between miserliness and profligacy. Aristotle introduced the golden mean to Western philosophy 2,500 years ago. Weighing fear according to this ideal, the preferred alternative to panic is not fearlessness but prudence (the half-way point between the two). The word prudence today suggests fear, but originally it signified “right thinking.” Numbered among the seven classic virtues, it meant knowing the good and acting accordingly. In terms of the familiar Serenity Prayer— “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”—prudence is the “wisdom to know the difference.” So understood, far from being a drab virtue, prudence invites us to be bold, not timid, as long as we aren't foolish.

Security is not a golden mean, but one end of a continuum that extends all the way to untrammeled freedom on the other. In this sense, security and liberty are opposites. Objects that are secured lock into place; they cannot move. Before resetting our alarms, we must therefore decide just how safe we wish to be, never forgetting that security itself is a form of bondage. Both security and bondage entail a loss of freedom.

In our search for the right level of security, there are national ramifications to consider as well as personal ones. To obsess over threats to safety while ignoring threats to liberty demonstrates as little enlightened self-interest as does a person who thinks nothing about borrowing logs from the walls of his home to replenish his supply of firewood. As the house grows draftier, in order to keep the fire burning brightly enough to make up for the lost heat, he must take more and more wood from the walls. Tending his hearth, he destroys his home.

Since we can purchase no security whose warranty will not one day expire, wisdom counsels lavishing at least a little security in exchange for liberty. Once we as a nation have done all the obvious and sensible things to protect ourselves against another terrorist attack, each additional fraction of protection exacts a proportional sacrifice of freedom. And not only freedom. When our alarms warn us only against threats that imperil our safety, they fail to alert us to dangers that may jeopardize our humanity. “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster,” wrote the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. “When you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

At times like these, I can't help but be nostalgic for the kind of leadership Franklin Delano Roosevelt provided, deftly tending the national psyche through a period of economic despair and world war. In reminding his fellow Americans that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, President Roosevelt sought to make us less vulnerable to our enemies, not more like them.

Excerpted with permission from Freedom from Fear: Finding the Courage to Act, Love, and Be (St. Martins Press, 2004).

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