09/09/2014 12:45 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2014

(Clinical) Fear and Loathing in America

The world is more frightening and complex than ever. We are in more danger. We are less aware. We are nearing a war to end all wars. We are closer to death--metaphorical or literal. So say the pundits, at least. Indeed, with the reach of the media--and particularly news--it's easy to believe we're in constant danger--physical and cultural.

But it's also somehow too convenient to think that the world is so complex and so scary (naturally, we fear the unknown). Statistics show we are in fact safer than we ever have been before; violent crimes in our nation are down, wars that, in the past, seemed inevitable, are now stopped through negotiations, treaties, and sanctions. We even live longer, despite our unhealthy ways. We know more--knowledge is created at a never before seen pace, and is more accessible (as clear by the previously mentioned facts).

Yet we are steeped in the mindset of fear; we can't understand the world today, so we remain terrified. We might as well.

Obviously, theres a dissonance between what we believe, and what's actually happening. But maybe that's not what's most important here. If we can, for a moment, forget the idea of this dissonance, and try to see what exactly is frightening so many people psychologically, we can try to reconcile the very real fear that exists with the very real--if perhaps overinflated--dangers and unknowns we are confronting.

References to the the growing dangers--and nuances--of the globe have been popping up lately. Barack Obama aptly stated, in relation to ISIS: "We live in a complex world and at a challenging time. And none of these challenges lend themselves to quick or easy solutions..." And yes, we are in a complex time, none with easy or quick solutions. But are they more complex or challenging than past issues?

There may be a few reasons one could believe so. America's power is waning. Over the next century, our economic, political, and military clout will probably be surpassed by China, India, or even Brazil. Is this inherently frightening? Maybe. Does it make our self-determination more difficult? I'd say yes. But maybe it's because we, as a people, have psychologically inhabited a superiority complex for so long. We're used to be number one, and not much else. The notion that we're failing to perpetuate this power is pretty scary; we are, after all, the purveyors of democracy, freedom and peace.

So maybe the world is scary and complex. Is it any more so than before America became the greatest power we've ever witnessed? Probably not.

Obama's quote continued "..but all of them [the global challenges] require American leadership..." We're setting the bar too high.

We tried saving the world from Communism--tried fighting both Korea and Vietnam to make a stand. The Soviet Union, by many accounts, was just as powerful as the US at the height of the Cold War. But in the end, the Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight, and China (after supporting the Korean and Vietnamese soldiers we fought against), ended up as a crony capitalistic state. Nixon, the same man who ended the Vietnam war, met with Mao, forging a relationship that would open the Chinese economy. The rest is history.

Did American leadership really save the world? Or, thinking more contextually, did a process of reconciliation occur between nations that previously loathed one another? American leadership had a part; but things had to change in China and the USSR before any of this could ever happen. I don't think the answer to the previous question is too difficult to discern.

The last part of Obama's quote read: "And as commander in chief, I'm confident that, if we stay patient and determined, that we will, in fact, meet these challenges." But will we remain patient? And can we meet these challenges?

ISIS is waging a war across the Middle East, Ebola is spreading in West Africa, Israel and Palestine are at each other's throats, our economy isn't growing, our political parties are in a stalemate, our leaders are viewed as ineffective or corrupt...the list goes on and on. We can't possibly meet every challenge. It's not feasible.

We're simply not being realistic.

A fascinating psychological principle posits that individuals who are generally depressed are, oddly, more realistic; these depressed people are more capable of deducing everything from their level of attractiveness (as measured by others), to utilizing basic logical skills (like estimating the distance between two objects). The majority of people aren't depressed like this. We'd have a much more principled (and glum) society if we were.

What about everyone else, then? It turns out, particularly in America, most people inflate their self worth. This isn't surprising. But it's really only pathological (or harmful) when it becomes over the top, like someone who's narcissistic.

Maybe as a nation--despite the depressed economy--we're not looking at ourselves clearly. We are still powerful--but no one, and no country, could possibly confront the mass amount of issues we believe we're responsible for in today's world. That is scary.

So maybe it's not that the world is more complex. Maybe we're just hyperbolizing global problems. Maybe it's that Americans aren't willing to accept a secondary role. Maybe we're pathological. It could be called "Nationalistic Narcissism".

But this is only half the picture. While we inflate our egos, we also, in many cases, feel powerless. This is frequently the other side of clinical narcissism (i.e. the kind psychologists treat). We vacillate between feeling all-controlling, and completely helpless, just like narcissistic patients.

But, as I stated originally, we do know more than ever before. And we also feel responsible for more than ever before.

Maybe we've been thinking about this incorrectly. Maybe, just maybe, we're matching the complexities and fears the world presents; maybe it's merely a reflection, a reflection we're using to try to reconcile these realities. This gives us an equilibrium. In Psychology, that means internal expectations are matching the external reality. If that's true, we don't have as much reason to be fearful of harm or ignorance as we think. We're already fighting it, whether we realize it or not.