I've been meaning to write this post for .... oh, six months or so. But something Enbrethiliel said set me off, and now I think I'm really going to do it.
It's hard to be alive and not to be afraid. It's even harder to be a parent and not be afraid. After all, most of us would rather die than have something happen to our children, and yet it is a lot easier to keep oneself alive than a tiny helpless human with no judgment.
In the modern world, it's even scarier, because we have the news: in the space of a few days, I have read of maybe four children dying. I can't cope with this. I can't even think about it. And this is just from Facebook and blogs -- I don't actually watch the news or read the paper.
Intellectually, most of us are aware that there are some dangers we can't do much about. And yet, there is a funny bit of the human psyche that has to try. We have to do something -- anything -- to make sure the things we fear don't happen to us.
The most obvious case is OCD. A person has obsessive fears, which they cope with by compulsive behavior. If they fear dying of illness, they might wash their hands all the time.
And yet there are many cultural compulsions as well. For instance, Koreans won't sleep with a fan on, because it's a common belief there that fans can kill you. Meanwhile, Americans are terrified of SIDS and will often compulsively do anything that has been correlated with an even slightly lower risk -- including running a fan while the baby is sleeping.
I reviewed the book Free-Range Kids awhile back. It talks about the many things parents fear, like abduction or poisoned Halloween candy, that we really shouldn't fear. And yet, if you don't fear them the amount our culture deems appropriate, people will think you're a bad parent who doesn't love your kids.
Recently it occurred to me that conservatives fear home invasion, to a point that seems irrational to me. Everyone seems to have a plan for what they would do if someone broke down their door in the middle of the night and went for their kids. (The plan is: shoot them.) But how likely is this to happen? I can't find out; if I google "home invasion" I get a lot of panicky blog posts telling you you're hiding your head in the sand if you don't have a loaded weapon on your bedside table. I can't find statistics for my town. I wouldn't be surprised if the number was zero.
And pretty much all Americans fear terrorism. Even though you're far more likely to die of a car crash, plane crash, armed robbery, or lightning strike, it's terrorist attack that chills our blood. It's understandable, with the trauma the whole nation seems to have experienced after 9-11, but the result seems to be that we now must police the entire world and kill any number of innocents just so we can be "sure" this will never happen. To say nothing of the loss of privacy and civil rights -- the full-body scanners at airports, the ID checks people would like to institute in all public places.
What seems clear enough to me is that we are all desperate to alleviate our fear through some useful-seeming activity. But it also is pretty clear that the actions we take aren't always helpful. How many terrorist attacks have been stopped by full-body scanners? Try none. What if someone beats down your door and shoots you before you can get your loaded weapon pointed in the right direction? Uh-oh. What if you laid your baby on their back on a firm mattress in an approved crib with the door open and a fan running ... and they still die?
Well, at least we can feel we'd done all we could, I suppose. But I think the real purpose we do those things is so that we can feel safer, so that we can put our fears to sleep and move on with life. It's like monster-repellant spray, for adults, so that we can go to bed at night.
And that's why, as Enbrethiliel mentioned, we blame other people for the catastrophes that happened to them. Your child is autistic? It must be because you had them vaccinated; mine aren't, so it won't happen to me. Your child died of pertussis? Well, you didn't get them their vaccines; I did, so it won't happen to me. You had a miscarriage? It must be because you weren't thankful for being pregnant; I am thankful, so it won't happen to me. You are poor? Don't ask for help from me, it must be because God is not blessing you due to your sin.
I mention these last two because religion comes into it a heck of a lot. I am tired of people saying, "We tithe ten percent and we've never gone hungry; if you tithe ten percent every single month, God will take care of you." That was never promised! It's not part of our religion, any part of it, that God will prevent you from being poor. Or dying, or losing a child, or getting sick. This whole "do this and things will work out" nonsense is more like superstition than religion. Religion is about going to heaven, about building a relationship with our creator. There is no novena you can say that guarantees you will never know suffering.
When your religion consists in this "prosperity gospel," feeling calm and safe while others undergo calamity because God will protect you, two very bad things happen. First, you become prideful and assume you are better than people who don't have the blessings you do. Second, sooner or later your luck runs out, something bad happens to you, and you say, "I suppose this whole religion thing is a lie, because I did it all and bad things still happened."
Neither is true. If a pagan does his sacrifices perfectly and still has misfortune, he'd better give it up. He had one purpose -- to get good fortune for himself -- and clearly it's not working.
The Catholic faith is about salvation, love, and relationship with God. I often repeat the rather depressing promise Jesus made us: "You will be weeping and wailing while the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy."
So what sense are we to make of the way the wicked prosper while bad things happen to good people? The seeming senselessness of random tragedy?
I figure we deal with it just like everyone else does: hope, try not to think about it, comfort ourselves with precautions, look on the bright side. We can also know that God is with us through tragedy, and that can help a lot. And maybe remember that death isn't the end, and perhaps we should not be quite so terrified of it.
Well, I'm working on that last bit.