Commentary: Shiny New Year, age-old fear

New Year card, Frances Brundage, 1910, public domain

For the last hundred years or so, Baby New Year has turned up in newspapers, greeting cards and other media to personify the beginning of a new calendar. Usually blond, often sporting a top hat, and a sash emblazoned with the digits for the New Year, the little guy is supposed to represent hope for a fresh start. But really he terrifies us.

We know he will age rapidly in 12 months to become that withered old man, in diapers once again, who will need help finding the door to the afterlife on 31 December. His message can be read as: hope is fleeting. It seems that with each passing year there are more things of which to be afraid: climate change, job insecurity, a new invasive pest, another Ebola outbreak.

What is fear—is it our ancient fight-or-flight response that has saved hominids from poison snakes and predators for the last 2 million years, or a pathology which has spawned anti-immigrant xenophobia and extremist violence? Yes, and yes—exactly. Fear is natural, and can serve us. But it can also enslave us if we fail to acknowledge it.

Somehow we have gotten the message that admitting fear is to admit weakness. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, acknowledging fear is what deflates it. Like infected pustules and shameful secrets, fears lose their potency when exposed to fresh air and the light of day.

Fears do not go away when they are hidden—that only makes them resurface in a far more dangerous form—hatred, a manifestation of buried, unconscious fear. The opposite of love is not hate, but unacknowledged fear. Here is a universal fact: we all have fears, no matter how old we are. It is part of the human condition. The sooner we admit this, the better off we will all be.

An important concept is that courage is choosing to act in spite of fear. By definition, we cannot be courageous if we do not feel afraid. The slogan “No Fear” on car decals is a sad farce—a person without fear is incapable of ever being brave. There are people who, because of brain defect, never feel scared, and thus are not capable of being courageous.

Ironically—and tragically—failing to admit fear can lead to extremism of all kinds, such as nationalism, racism, and sexism. It sets the stage for the rise of fascism, and for continued terrorism—more stuff to be scared of. And thus the cycle is perpetuated.

When a child calls out in the night “I’m scared,” a well-meaning parent may tell them there’s nothing to be afraid of. That’s not the point. The feeling is there, waiting to be recognized. The appropriate response is to acknowledge the feeling—OK, you feel scared—and invite the child to talk about it. Once validated, the fear fades.

Only a sadistic parent would deliberately aggravate that fear. But in a sense, that is exactly what most corporations, and some public officials, try very hard to do. Although adults do have real anxiety, based on things like paying the mortgage or keeping our job, we are still beset with vague unfounded fears that come with being human. The primary one is that we’re afraid we are not enough. This is a near-universal fear, and is what makes advertising work so well. If we were secure in ourselves, we would not fall victim to buying designer-label stuff, or identifying with a brand of any sort.

But a far greater crime, one responsible for much unnecessary suffering in the world, is when politicians prey on our universal fear by cynically directing it toward a group of people whom they depict as “Other.” This happened most infamously in Wiemar Germany. Deeply unsettled by economic hardships, a majority of people were willing to back a leader and party which blamed a vulnerable group for all their woes. A party was able to gain power by channeling popular fear into hatred, even though there was absolutely no factual basis for this mass blame.

As a result of today’s unprecedented income inequality around the world, most developed nations now face rapidly increasing economic strain. We are now seeing the rise of leaders who cynically seek power by blaming certain groups. In some cases, these individuals may partially buy into their own fantasies, but the outcome is that the most vulnerable groups are being blamed—absent one shred of hard evidence—for our fears.

Not only is this dangerous in the extreme, it reduces us to the status of infants. No one can unfairly blame a group or groups of “Others” unless they first abdicate all personal responsibility for their emotions. Fear is uncomfortable—it takes real balls to face it. But hatred is easy. Hatred is a drug that numbs our fear, and while we are under its influence, it strips away our ability to act with courage. Channeling fear into hatred is the definition of cowardice. Are we to be a nation of hate-mongering cowards, or will we admit we’re scared, and act courageously by looking at our fears?

Breaking this cycle requires aligning ourselves with love. It requires being honest enough to admit feeling scared, and being vulnerable enough to talk openly about that. It requires that we recognize we are all in the same human condition, and that we become willing to listen to the fears of others without judgment.

Baby New Year is right: life is short. Next year is not guaranteed us. Let’s be brave enough in 2019 to recognize that a hateful act is an indication of how terrified its perpetrator is; brave enough to admit that regardless of apparent differences we are all human, and as such are fraught with fears; and brave enough to choose love by resisting attempts by leaders to manipulate our fears and turn them against others.

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4 Comments on “Commentary: Shiny New Year, age-old fear”

  1. Peter Klein says:

    Fear? Really? Okay, so you hate Donald Trump, so what? Coward? The closest I ever came to being afraid was back in the mid 60’s and some guy held knife to my throat for 3 or 4 minutes while I and a friend tried to convince him it would be a really bad idea for him to kill me. He didn’t and we all went on to live our lives. I never pressed charges. Why would I when I wasn’t hurt?
    But now we live in a world where ever one is shocked, offended and fearful. And to all those who are, get a life and suck it up. Grow up and stop being babies.

  2. Paul Hetzler says:

    Hello Pete,
    Thank you for your comment–we do seriously appreciate it. But we are saddened to notice your misreading of our statements. This essay is the precise opposite of what you frame it to be–a critique of US politics.
    The intention here is to reflect on the process of fear, not the natural fear when your life is threatened, but the more subtle unconscious fear we all have that sadly transforms into anger, hatred, judgement, and all too often, into harmful political movements the world over.
    We certainly do NOT hate anyone! The message is that we need more love because it is the answer to hate and fear–a nice message on the cusp of the New Year, don’t you think, Pete?
    Blessings in 2019!

  3. Peter Klein says:

    It is fear itself that I wish to attack. It is a useless emotion. While it does stem from survival instincts, it clouds rational thinking that could solve the problem. Once fear raises its ugly head, you need to put it back in the box and figure out how to act to survive.
    Just for the record, I believe we live in the best of times. We have it easy compared to all times before 1950.

  4. Lauribelle says:

    Amen, Paul!

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