What are you afraid of?

Fear is a very, very important and useful emotion. If you find yourself standing face to face with a grizzly bear you ought to be very frightened. [Side Note: As I was writing this post a story popped up in my news feed about a student who was hiking in the woods in New Jersey who spotted a bear and decided to get closer and take some pictures. The bear subsequently mauled and killed him. So, yeah, be afraid of bears.] If you are awakened in the middle of the night by a shrieking smoke alarm and smell smoke or see fire being fearful is perfectly reasonable. In both situations your breathing will get shallow, your heart will race and adrenaline will pump through your body. This fight or flight response will increase your odds of survival in a genuinely dangerous situation, enabling you to perhaps run away from the bear, or quickly escape from your burning house.

Entirely too many people in our world are afraid for really no reason though most of the time. As Rick Steves pointed out in his recent Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times, people don’t wish their friends “Bon Voyage” (have a good trip) much anymore. Instead they are admonished to “travel safely” as if the world had somehow become much more dangerous.

As Rick put it – Fear is for people who don’t get out much.

I spend most of my working life out and about visiting the buildings under my care. Some are located in tawny, affluent suburbs. Others are located in some pretty gritty urban environments. I am constantly admonished by friends and family to be careful. I appreciate their concern, but mostly feel like it is misplaced.

What I have learned from traveling the world, and spending time in lots of different kinds of places is that places aren’t dangerous. People aren’t dangerous. Situations are dangerous. Being fearful because a place has a bad reputation is silly and causes you to focus on the wrong things. Once fear, and the fight or flight response takes hold of you your ability to perceive reality, and act appropriately is lessened. Part of the fight or flight response causes us to have tunnel vision, and focus too tightly, which makes you less aware of your surroundings and less able to perceive accurately the situation you are in. Rather than making you safer, being fearful puts you at a higher risk of missing a queue that might allow you to avoid a potentially bad situation.

Here’s the pickle, as Rick Steves points out in his column – if you’re consuming the product of the 24 hour cable news cycle daily you are likely buying into what they are selling, which is the notion that the world is lurching from crisis to crisis every day. The reality of the actual world, beyond your front door, and even beyond your town is very, very different. Most of the time what’s going on around us is pretty darned mundane. People go to work and to school, they go grocery shopping, they go to doctor’s appointments, they mow their lawns, or wash their cars, etc. I walk my dog most every morning. You know what I see? People walking their dogs.

Understand that the world really isn’t a lot more complex than it was when Walter Cronkite signed off, as Steves points out in his column, by saying, “And that’s the way it is,” at the end of a 30 minute broadcast that only happened on weeknights. The important information about what’s happening on the planet could be summed up in 30 minutes when this country was at war in Vietnam, in a global ideological conflict with the USSR, had rampant inflation due to a ruined economy, a President who was abusing his powers by turning the FBI, CIA and IRS on his political opponents, loads of racial unrest and tons of really questionable fashion choices all around us. 24 hour cable news networks run out of material, so they manufacture drama in order to fill time.

Is there an Ebola epidemic in Western Africa? Yes, but it’s not a story that’s changing minute by minute, hour by hour or even day by day. Is there gridlock in Congress? Yes, but again, this is not a story that is changing minute by minute, hour by hour in ways that are significant or worthy of constant attention.

Your view of the world is determined by what you focus on. Focus on disease, disasters, murders, political infighting and so on, and on, and on and that’s the filter you will start to judge the entirety of your existence through. You’re also wasting time and energy on stuff that, largely, has nothing to do with you. I have said it before and I will say it again – Be the sort of person you want the world to be full of. All the time and energy spent on fearing things that are either much less important than the talking heads on cable want you to believe they are or simply irrelevant takes away from time you could be spending on improving yourself and enjoying the world around you.

It is often said we are the distillation of the five people we spend most of our time with. If you’re shut into your home or office spending most of your time with Wolf Blitzer and Megan Kelley… Well, you can finish that sentence for yourself.

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