“Can you see out the window?”
“Can you hear the engine getting louder?”
“We’re going to be taking off soon.”
It’s 1988, and I’m accompanying my daughter on her first plane flight. My entire focus is to ensure she feels safe.
“Can you feel us beginning to move?”
“Now, things outside the window are starting to get smaller.”
“There’s no need to be afraid.”
“What is there to be afraid of?”
Hm. Well, if she wasn’t afraid of flying before, she will be now.
See, my daughter wasn’t afraid of flying because the thought never occurred to her. Her father wouldn’t take her anyplace that was unsafe, by any unsafe means. That was all she needed to know.
Through my good intentions I had potentially encumbered her – for life – with my own anxiety. Fortunately, her resilience and common sense won out. (In the ensuing decades, she has never failed to delightfully exceed my expectations.)
I thought of our first flight together twenty-five years ago when the Aisiana plane crash-landed in San Francisco this weekend. Did you see this on the news? Of course you did. The first day, at least, was about what might have happened, interspersed with a small fact every few hours. So why the constant coverage? Because we demand it. Because our sense of anxiety requires that we make sense of this, to reassure us that we’re safe.
First of all, let’s establish some definitions.
- Fear is a distressing emotion aroused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.
- Definitions of anxiety sound the same, but are usually bound to the future, with words like “worry” and “apprehension.” So for purposes of psychology, fear is “Oh, my gosh, that’s a bear!” while anxiety is “Oh, my gosh, that might be a bear!”
Our anxiety in the presence of safety has evolutionary origins: the accurate anticipation of threat led to the perpetuation of the species in the face of complex and unremitting dangers. It served the cave man well to startle at a rustle in the bushes – to be, well, anxious. As Robin Marantz Henig wrote in a fascinating article about evolution and religion, “we often mistake a rock for a bear, but hardly anyone mistakes a bear for a rock.”
This brought me back to one of the paradoxes of living in the 21st century. A study by the World Health Organization found that in high‐income countries, we are the “safest” generation to ever live on Earth. We are less likely to personally become a victim of warfare, pestilence, famine, disease, disaster, crime, and several other indices of safety than any previous generation.
Why, then are we so scared? You can blame evolutionary biology, but I believe the co-conspirators are the networks, newspapers and websites that bring us unending coverage of tragic events.
So besides turning off the TV and the computer, what’s the solution? Click here to find out.