One of Hurricane Sandy's consequences is surprisingly heartening: in the most affected communities, people fear more for the welfare of their families and neighbors than for the rarefied concerns that occupy most of our time. It is possible to pull out of this natural disaster deep and true observations about the nature of fear, and to distinguish between healthy concerns and those that are a waste of time.
In the yuppie tradition (of which I am a part) thrives a fascinating phenomenon, where those who live in safety enjoy putting themselves in danger.
Well, maybe "in danger" is too strong -- more like next to danger. You know what I'm describing: boxing, surfing, MMA, skydiving, rock climbing, backpacking, scuba-diving, skiing -- the list goes on. What links them all is exhilaration and the possibility of getting messed up in the process.
I won't criticize too much; I'm one of these types -- suburban born, seeking opportunities to leave safety behind.
Now, there is a method behind this modern madness; sitting next to danger is a way of choosing healthy fear over distracting, meaningless fear. It's a way of choosing to which fears one will respond.
Fear cannot be banished from life. We talk of conquering fear, but the idiom is misleading. Fear does not stay cowed. Instead what one can do is respond well in its face. Remember Kierkegaard's preamble to "Fear and Trembling":
"In those old days it was different. For then faith was a task for a whole lifetime, not a skill thought to be acquired in either days or weeks. When the old campaigner approached the end, had fought the good fight, and kept his faith, his heart was still young enough not to have forgotten the fear and trembling that disciplined his youth."
And one can choose which kinds of fear dominate one's life.
Fear is all around us. Unfortunately, most of it is stupid: parents fear that their child may not be exceptional at every moment (and blackmail teachers to make it so); young professionals fret whether we'll make our mark upon the world, and whether it'll be the right kind of mark, the kind with a Prius and a boutique latte bought at the right farmers market. And then there is the most pernicious fear of all: that those from the wrong kind of social and national strata will somehow invade our lives for the worse, taking from us what belongs to us, putting our families in danger, threatening our identities. We are gripped by useless fear.
When in the clutch of dumb fear, a little danger readjusts one's perspective. Getting hit in the face is a wonderfully clarifying experience; being tossed off the face of a wave prioritizes life beautifully. In those moments, one tends not to sweat the small stuff.
Of course, these experiences are all moderated. One chooses to enter into them. Most of the time, one can leave at will. We who can afford this perverse enjoyment are the straw in the world's haystack. Much of the rest of humanity lives in fear from which they cannot escape. And there is no glory in their pain.
Rather the point is that people cannot escape fear by insulating themselves in economic privilege. The fear just turns into something else: something far less relevant, something harmful because it is so speculative, a kind of useless fear that inevitably preys upon others: parents badger teachers over Bs; consumption (driven by fear of not having) requires low prices, which destroy working conditions; the well-off build walls to protect themselves from dangers real and imagined, creating stratified communities.
There is a spiritual technique of cultivating healthy fear to ward off these excesses.
Within Torah communities, people talk about yirah -- fear -- quite positively. To have yirat shamyim (fear of heaven) is a virtue. We've even got a verse for it: "The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God" (Psalm 111:10).
Most moderns view the idea with distaste: What kind of good God would want to be feared?
But I think we miss the point. To say someone has yirah means that she has chosen what to fear: not the boss, nor the neighbors, nor the neighbor's opinion, nor the kids' academic future. Yirah is fear of two things: what account she will give to the Creator, and whether the Master of the World will bring life-threatening danger in her lifetime.
The wisdom is in choosing what to fear, and the two above are far more worthy than those that normally consume us.
This is why Gov. Chris Christie is my hero. Our current political culture demands toeing party lines and focusing on electoral gain to the exclusion of any other concern.
Which is really dumb.
To say, "I've got 2.4 million people out of power. I've got devastation on the shore. I've got floods in the northern part of my state. If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics then you don't know me," is to let healthy fear, the kind that works for good, prevail.
No one asks for a hurricane, but there is something set free in the soul when communities make sure that people have food, clothing, power, safety and medical care -- real things. God bless those who are afraid for their neighbors in Sandy's aftermath.