ISIS. Ebola. Ferguson. We sit glued to our television sets enthralled by the power of “What-if.” What if ISIS comes here? What if I catch Ebola and die? What if disgruntled minorities rise up in violent protest where I live? The media sells it. We buy it. Fear. F.E.A.R. Fear. And it is ever so powerful.
Then what happens? What happens when we’re afraid? If we’re afraid of our house on fire (because we’re in it and it’s actually on fire) than running out screaming “my house is on fire” is a logical reaction.
But what if you’re afraid that you’re house might catch on fire? There are some normal precautions like fire insurance and not leaving the barbecue grill lit for hours while it’s leaning up against your house. But assuming we’re normally wise humans that take the most obvious measures of precaution – a fear of your house burning down isn’t very reasonable. Could it burn down? Yes. Could you catch a bad virus and die? Yes. Could you walk across the street and run into a member of ISIS? Yes.
All these things are possible. But do we fear the “what-ifs” of life? Well, actually, yes, we do. And the media loves that. Fear sells and news is a business. But there is also a scientific explanation for why we love to be afraid. There’s a part of our brain (the size of an almond) called the amygdala that’s our “fear center.” It receives impulses from our nervous system that tell us to be afraid. A snake that surprises us on a walk, a scary movie or a drop in the stock market send a signal to that part of our brain that tells us to act and feel “afraid.” And that fear impulse releases endorphins into our system that make us feel vividly awake. Alive. That’s why so many of the top grossing movies are horror flicks. We love to be afraid.
Our challenge is, most of the things we fear aren’t real. We see them on TV. In the last few months I’ve asked several hundred people this simple question “Who has seen the video of the ISIS guys cutting the heads off of their hostages?” Frankly, people are embarrassed to admit that they watched such a video, so some raise their hands and others don’t. Then I ask the question more specifically. “How many of you saw the video of one of those guys actually getting their head chopped off?” No one raises their hand. I then ask if they’d be surprised to know that there isn’t such a video.
But if you ask anyone if ISIS is chopping off heads, almost everyone would say a very positive “yes.” How do we “know” that? It’s because ISIS has been the masters of using social media to spread fear. Fear is as powerful – I’d argue that in some senses, more powerful than the actual act we’re afraid of.
How about this: If you knew there really was a video of someone literally getting their head sawed off, with full sound and effects would you watch? I doubt it. But almost all of us saw the photos of the scary looking man with a long knife standing next to the helpless hostage while Mr. Scary Guy told us he was about to cut the man’s head off. The man gives a speech and then the knife descends towards the hostage’s neck and the video fades to black. It’s absolutely terrifying. Our imaginations are powerful. We’re disgusted. Angry. Afraid. Paralyzed. Confused. And mostly, left wondering if it could happen to us.
Fear has power.
So the real question becomes, how do we respond to fear? What type of action does fear encourage? Is it likely to be rational? Spiritual? Helpful? Not likely.
When we’re told to fear ISIS (which is what has happened – we’ve been TOLD to fear them – and we’ve seen the videos), we think bombing them is a logical, rational next step. Few question whether ISIS should “be stopped.” We don’t really think through what that means, what it will take, what it will cost, the long term ramifications, or anything – we just know that they’ve terrified us (the videos) and we need to do whatever it takes to not be afraid of them. We’re pretty sure rationalizing with them won’t work (because someone told us that) and so bombing seems like a perfectly normal recourse.
The police in Ferguson have had a similar experience. The governor announced that they’re would be violence. Then the news told us that there would be violence. The prosecutor knew their would be violence. Everyone “knew it.” The city of Ferguson and the protestors were told over and over again “don’t be violent” because we “knew” they were going to be. So the National Guard was sent in. The police armed and barricaded themselves in preparation for the ensuing violence. And I’m sure the police were scared. What a surprise – there was violence.
Back up with me for just a second and let’s see if we can answer this basic question – did God create everyone? I think we’d agree that the answer is a simple “yes.” How about this one – does God love everyone? I’m pretty sure it’s still a “yes.” What about – is anyone born a violent protestor or a terrorist? I’ll bet the answer is “no.” Original sin aside, it’s my experience that most people generally desire to be good. To be generous and kind and helpful. Even to strangers.
The funny thing is this – for those of you who have spent time in the Muslim world and/or in the African-American community, wouldn’t you agree that those two groups of people are specifically some of the kindest, nicest, warmest people on earth. Right? So not only are they NOT born to be terrorists or violent protestors, I’d almost argue they have some kind of special “nice DNA.”
But if there’s any inclination in us to generalize and stereotype ISIS with all Muslims or with the people looting the store that we saw last night on TV in Ferguson with all black people – then, oh my – we might be the problem. And the problem isn’t simply racism or bigotry – those are just symptoms. It’s fear. It’s fear of the unknown or fear of we-don’t-know-what-but-we’re-just-afraid-because….
And by the way, ISIS isn’t coming. And Ferguson isn’t spilling over into your neighborhood. And if you think it is – stop thinking that. So when you see a Muslim or an African-American tomorrow, here’s what you do. (I’m serious). Walk straight over to him or her (don’t go too fast in case you might scare THEM). Gently and slowly walk towards them with the most friendly walk and smile you can muster and…get ready for this (you might want to write it down), say “hi.” You could also say “Hello” or “How ya doing?” Any such greeting will suffice. That’s it. No big speech necessary. And it’s not even for them – it’s for you. Do it for you. Just say hi.
Of course, this is a trick. Because when you say “hi,” they might say “Hey” back. And then you’ll get talking and who knows where it’ll go from there. All bets are off at the point. You could end up listening to them. Getting to know them. Eating together. Meeting their family. Understanding and appreciating them for who they are and where they came from. And, well, I’m a little nervous to say this part – but you could actually end up loving them.
And I read somewhere, that it’s love that drives out fear.