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Judith Acosta Headshot

The Wages of Fear

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It's axiomatic that you get what you pay for. On observation, however, I believe that there are times we get more than we bargain for, not all of it good. In the case of current media-inducements, we get much more and we are rarely aware of it.

Viral fear, that generalized anxiety induced and spread by the media in all its forms, is evident not only in advertising but in most television programming. There's the famous It Could Happen Tomorrow series on the Weather Channel and that important reminder Armageddon Week on the History Channel. For the thoroughly inured and brain-injured there's also a 24-7 fear channel on cable in case someone needs to scare themselves to sleep. Of course, it's not enough to watch horrifying dramatizations of our last days on earth. Advertisers do their duty when they alert us to the more imminent dangers to life and limb if we don't buy their ________ (insert one or all of the following: security system, flu vaccine, dietary supplement, colon cleanser, or SUV).

What we are almost never warned about are the far more real dangers of exposure to this sort of cataclysmic mind-set, this apocalyptic thinking with which we are saturated at every conceivable opportunity. We know what relentless fear does to the body (arrhythmias, night sweats, colitis, adrenal dysfunction, headaches to mention but a few) and to the psyche (hypervigilance, irritability, depression, lethargy, sleeplessness).

But what about the broader effects it has on us as a culture? If America were one whole person, what sort of symptoms would we be seeing?

Fear as a Cultural Disease

In my professional observations, the symptoms would be classified as part of the characterological disorders, which in psychiatric nomenclature refer to syndromes (sets of symptoms) which are chronic, pervasive and embedded in an individual's personality style. In my personal assessment, regular doses of viral fear do exactly what God warned us they would do - undermine faith, distort perceptions and mutate the self-in-relationship (with other people, our environments etc...). In compiling notes for this article and considering all the effects of viral fear, I began to notice that they were huddling together in groups. As it turned out, they all seemed to fall under the original rubrics of The Seven Deadly Sins.

Greed/Gluttony -- Obesity has been proclaimed one of this country's greatest health risks. It is pervasive, crossing ethnic, socio-economic and racial boundaries. It is responsible for a long list of other serious diseases. It is a huge drain on our economy. And interestingly it is a very recent development, having made itself problematic on a cultural scale only within the last few decades.

If one really thinks through this, it rapidly becomes clear that only technologically advanced, long-lasting and comfortable cultures can afford to become obese. Nascent or struggling societies do not have the time or luxury to sit around and get fat. Unfortunately, it is also a signal (as it was presumably for the Romans and the Mayans) that the life span of the civilization is nearing an end.

Cultural greed is demonstrated in a society's rapacious appetite for whatever is available (lumber, food, clothing, luxuries), its wastefulness and its tendency to stockpile. It requires more and more and more and more as if its collective appestat were damaged.

Oddly enough, this gluttony is directly traceable to fear. I say oddly because while we are a prosperous nation (materially) it is a survival tactic of the starving and the depleted. If we are afraid we won't have enough, we literally have to get as much as we can right away.

The other facet of this is that we have so much general anxiety that we eat (usually picking throughout the day) to keep ourselves busy and to soothe ourselves much the same way an upset or frightened baby will suckle on its mother's breast (and in the absence of the breast chew on a blanket or suck its own finger). The tragic irony of this is that we have more in our mouths and bellies than any other civilization in known history has ever had and we still imagine we're hungry.

Pride -- Most people don't use the word pride in the way scholars and theologians once did to refer to human willfulness and arrogance. But I think the old way is a more accurate and illuminating understanding of pride and why it's said to go before the fall.

Human pride or arrogance makes us think we are impervious to the gravitational pull of consequences and that we can dodge and sidestep the inevitable results of our actions in the world. Viral fear, in making us numb to stimuli of ever increasing intensity, creates a mental and emotional deadness (which may seem like fearlessness from the outside but is really a fear overload). When we are so benumbed, we pay no mind to consequences. We tell ourselves we are beyond it. This is the ultimate expression of "My Will not Thy Will" in that, now limitless and boundless, we become our own deities.

Sloth - I see sloth today in our paralysis. We are so afraid of so many things or so overwhelmed by so much information that we curl up on the couch feeling we are utterly powerless to face the world or that it would just take too much effort to do everything we needed to do.

Viral fear is a paralytic agent precisely because it provides so much information about how much danger we are in all the time. Who can fight all that? It's not just daunting, it really is impossible. You can't be a perfect boss, a perfect student, perfectly healthy and stunningly stylish while also staying perfectly prepared for your last days on earth before the BIG tsunami/asteroid/pandemic/nuclear war/mega-volcano hits, blows or sweeps us away.

Really, when you consider what level of stimulation we are dealing with is it so unreasonable for people to space out altogether? Is it unnatural for us to feel overwhelmed and simply too powerless to get up to do anything about the things we see that really need our attention? No. It's neither unreasonable nor unnatural. However, it is culturally a high-risk factor. A society that has no energy to grow or protect itself simply may not have the will to survive.

Vanity -- Another more current word for vanity is narcissism, although a true psychological narcissist is not what most people assume it is, that being a person who thinks the world of himself.

In actuality, narcissism is a compensation for fear and the narcissist typically has a very fragile sense of self. The posturing and pomposity are a shield or a defense against feelings of profound and frightening inadequacy. A narcissist (and there are far too many examples in America to single them out, but OJ Simpson and Donald Trump immediately come to mind) is so afraid of what others think that he inflates himself with tire pumps to prevent the anxiety from surfacing and having to get in touch with how he really feels about himself.

This is a syndrome so widespread and, even more worrisome, normalized in the worlds of politics and entertainment that it may as well be synonymous with both. To a narcissist nothing is his fault or his concern. Empathy is minimal and in extreme cases, nonexistent, at which point the narcissist becomes his end-point self, a bonafide sociopath.

You will never hear a narcissist say, "Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa," even though it would possibly be the smartest thing he's ever said. How vain are we? We are more afraid of wearing the wrong clothes, driving the wrong car or being seen with cellulite than a life with no meaning. We're more worried about tummy tucks than having a full relationship with our Creator or each other.

Our cultural vanity has not only dissociated us from personal responsibility, it has disconnected us from one another, created a false sense of entitlement and led us further away from the respect we should have for others instead of ourselves.

Lust -- We are literally blanketed with messages infused with lust (advertising, television series, movies, magazines, internet pornography). Underneath all the hype, however, is not sexual prowess or erotic love but a deep-seated fear of sexual inadequacy and unworthiness. Because it's all about us and our own fears, this sort of lust is not even a truly sexual experience, but a coveting of power, control and validation. It certainly comes nowhere near a true erotic love.

What does America covet? Everything. Why? What happens if we don't have it all? Actually...nothing. But it's what we fear might happen that propels coveting to the levels we see it in our society. If we don't get that girl, if we don't have multiple sexual partners, if we don't have sex on demand we're afraid it might mean we're not good enough. But where do we get the idea that sexual activity gives a person self-worth or validates him/her socially? How did we become so afraid?

I'm sure it's not the first time people have been deluded in this way. Sex and power have always been combined in lust like kissing cousins. But, whereas before we could count on our spiritual leaders, literature and entertainment media (poets, bards, minstrels, storytellers, myth makers) to point out the folly of our ways and make some efforts to enlighten us, this may be the first time a country has been so convinced of the veracity of something so patently false by the complicity of widespread media misinformation.

Envy -- Envy is like lust, but twisted. It says, "I don't just want that, I want it because you have it. In fact I want whatever you have." This is a function of viral fear at the most essential and unfortunately most epidemic level. As a result of image advertising where the product or service is equated with the "self" and having the product means that we're as good if not better than everyone else, then in order to be even "okay," we have to have what everyone else has and more.

Envy is a sure sign that someone is afraid of being judged on his or her own merits. An envious person is afraid of not having the car, the house, the clothes or the friends the other person has because the envious person mistakenly believes that the car and the clothes really do make the man, both literally and figuratively.

Not having the right image is tantamount to not being right. Can anything be more fear-based than that? Unfortunately, yes. There's now a product by Verizon Wireless called EnV.

Wrath -- Last but certainly not the least frequent in the list of symptoms we suffer from viral fear, anger is actually frustration that results from a narcissistic entitlement. The logic goes something like this: I am afraid of being inadequate. Therefore I puff myself up so I can feel more than adequate. All puffed up, I feel entitled. If I am what I present (instead of what I really am) the objects I have in my possession, the clothing I wear, the car I drive, my position on the highway off ramp--all these things that are otherwise meaningless - take on enormous meaning. I identify with them. If I don't have the best position, the best, car, the best clothing, if I'm not first on line (as is my right, my due), then I become enraged. Road rage is a perfect example of fear-based narcissism gone amok.

The ideas I've reconstituted here are not new. They were given to us as warnings thousands of years ago. The context may have changed, but the pertinence hasn't. What was foolish then is foolish now. The only difference is that this time we are the ones needing the correction.