Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Fear and superstition

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.


Sally Thomas said...

You know, a large part of the reason I became a Catholic was that Catholicism doesn't flinch from, or explain away, or blame away, or sentimentalize away, suffering. It says: this stuff happens, but if you let it, it will lead you further into the heart of God. This seemed to me at the time, and still seems to me now, the only real, possible, sustainable and sustaining response to the problem of suffering.

Re children and protectiveness: We have tended to be kind of free-rangey here -- I have acquaintances who marvel, continually, like every time I see them, that I'm okay with my (wait for it) *twenty-year-old* being a thousand miles from home. I tend not to mention to them that my 16-year-old more or less manages his own life and gets himself around town on his own, because their 16-year-olds aren't allowed to participate in 5K races, because they don't have an adult who can run with them through iffy parts of town, which are the same parts of town my 16-year-old runs through alone at 4:30 a.m. . . . and there the conversation stops dead.

I don't know what the heck they expect these kids to do when they grow up, other than still live at home and be taken care of. One friend of mine does explicitly expect that: she thinks that since she waited a long time to have children, now that she does have them she should never have to give them up. She's not a Catholic, so does not have what I think of as the highly useful Catholic language of "detachment," which to me seems a real loss.

My daughter (the 20-year-old) has friends her age who are afraid to drive a car on the highway, despite having driven for years, and I wonder . . . on the one hand, the really statistically logical fears are the ones that have to do with cars, but on the other hand, I think we're raising a lot of fearful young adults who can't cope with what you'd think were basic competencies of life. And I have been determined that my kids *would* grow up to have a clue. Still, the knowledge that if something happened to them in the course of getting a clue, people might hasten not to comfort but to blame me, is sobering. I'm quite disturbed by this cultural trend of eliminating -- not just accidents themselves, but the idea of the accident, the circumstance beyond anyone's control, so that presumably we'll ultimately be left with nothing but human error and no choice but to sue or criminalize . . . somebody.

And . . . death. I dunno. I've seen my father die. I've been with my good friend in the aftermath of the death of one of her children. It's not that being close to death and loss makes those things any less anyone's worst nightmare, except that over time you do see that "I'll never be happy again," which is what I thought at my dad's death, is never the last word, even in this life. Sorrow does turn to joy, and the Lord gives it to us, even in this fallen world and this mortal life, as a gift and a surprise, when we thought we'd never have it any more.

Enbrethiliel said...


Now that you've brought up OCD, I wonder if what we're dealing with is OCD on a cultural scale.

The idea of safety in rituals is alive and well in the Philippines as well. And no, I don't mean Catholicism! ;-P Over a decade ago, there was a bomb scare at a big shopping centre, and from that moment, all malls have stationed security guards at every entrance just "to inspect" people's bags. Of course, it's all theatre: you unzip your bag, they poke a stick in and push the stuff around once or twice, and then you're free to enter the mall. (The adjective "free" is used ironically.) It really accomplishes nothing--and didn't prevent several dramatic robberies at gunpoint last year--but I'll bet that most people would feel too scared to enter a shopping centre or cineplex which didn't let them perform this ritual first.

Belfry Bat said...

Say, Enbrethiliel, if people won't enter a mall unless they've some idea this show of filtering has gone on... why do they feel safe enough to leave the mall?

Enbrethiliel said...


Because all bomb scares have involved the mall and the metro? (Yes, they check bags at metro stations, too.)

Sheila said...

Here they do that fuss at museums and courthouses, but I don't know anyone who actually thinks it makes anyone safer. My brother actually got caught with a knife in his pocket going into the Smithsonian, and the guards said they'd let it slip this time, but next time to leave it at home!

Sally, I agree absolutely with all you said. I want to let my kids "free-range" a lot more than average, but the fear does get me. Especially when everyone would disapprove of me for being so "careless" already, whatever would I feel or do if something *did* happen? People hover just so that if something did, they could say they did everything they possibly could, so it could not have been their fault. Whereas if you do anything that's not the norm, everyone will shake their heads when they hear of some catastrophe that's happened to you, even if unrelated, and tell themselves it is your fault because that makes them feel safer.

Catholicism, though, is at least rational. It accepts that you can't control very much in your life, and that's okay -- you *can* control your behavior. I have a lot of respect for pagan nature worshippers, because they are usually nice people and nature is, after all, a beautiful and amazing thing. So I leafed through a book on paganism the other day, and was so disappointed. If you worshipped nature, why not work within nature's laws? Instead, they fuss around with spells and magic circles because a huge part of the point for them is to feel safe.

If you want to feel safe, the last thing you should ever worship is nature!

Anyway the whole thing is just so irrational I put the book away. Anything that suggests you can fix the problem of suffering is a lie, and easily demonstrable as one, so I am not wasting any time on it.

The Sojourner said...

When I was making my birth plan it occurred to me at one point that the field of obstetrics seems to be afflicted with some sort of collective anxiety disorder. You know, "You have to be on continuous monitoring because the baby's heart might stop suddenly and we wouldn't notice in time!!" Even though research shows that continuous monitoring doesn't improve outcomes and can in fact worsen them. (It leads to higher rates of C-sections and other interventions over normal blips in fetal heart rate.) And I thought to myself, "Man, I went to therapy in order to NOT think like that all the time. Why would I take it from a medical professional?" But every now and then I would get seized with worry that my baby would die and everyone would blame it on my declining this or that intervention. Because as you said, people think they can magically ward off tragedy.

(I never actually wrote my birth plan because I ended up going into labor at 37 weeks. So I just ordered around the nurses and the random resident who ended up catching my baby. It was great.)

Sheila said...

No kidding. Hospitals drive me nuts with their "sure it won't actually help but it would be negligent not to do X" attitude.

Congrats on the birth! I let myself get behind on your blog again ..thak goodness you keep coming back here so that I remember to go read. I want baby pictures!

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