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Fearing Fear Itself

Rabbi David Segal Aspen Jewish Congregation Parshat Yitro • 17 February 2017

President Roosevelt warned us that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” but these days, I’m pretty afraid of fear. It dominates our personal lives and political choices. While it’s true that fear can be a life-saving response to threats, today our fears are largely out of sync with reality.

Are you afraid of dying in a car accident? According to the Wall Street Journal (2017-02-17, A3), “Motor-vehicle deaths surged for the second straight year in 2016.” That was an increase of 14% over 2014, “the sharpest two-year escalation in more than a half-century,” to a total of 40,200 deaths. According to a University of Wisconsin study, you have a 1 in 7,000 chance of dying in a car accident in any given year.

Preliminary reports attribute the increase in fatalities to distracted driving, among other factors. Just this morning as I was driving up 82, I could see in the rearview mirror that the truck driver behind me was holding his phone in front of his face. For a while.

The same Wisconsin study said you have a 1 in 600 chance of dying of cancer within a given year, and a one in 6 million chance of dying in a plane hijacking — and that’s assuming hijackers destroy one plane every year, which isn’t even the case.

Our fear leads us to wrong conclusions about what threatens us, which leads us to poor political behavior and bad policymaking. Part of the federal government’s constitutional mandate is to provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare. What would it look like if government spent as many resources on traffic safety and cancer treatment as it does on counterterrorism?

Chapman University’s annual Survey of American Fears in 2016 showed the number one fear as “Government corruption.” Now, that one I happen to think the evidence supports… But also in the top 10 are: terrorist attack on nation, being a victim of terrorism, gun control (note: not gun violence, but gun restriction, strikes fear in the hearts of Americans), and, coming in at number 10, Obamacare. Notice that car accidents and cancer didn’t make the list. And consider that between 2005-2015, jihadist terror killed 94 people in the US, while the number of shooting deaths in the same 10-year span was over 300,000. We fear terrorists more than guns, even though we are 3200 times more likely to be killed by a gun than a terrorist.

The Executive Order on immigration — the “ban” — was presented as an attempt to protect us from terrorism. But consider this: The 19 perpetrators of the September 11 attacks came from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt — and guess how many of those countries were included in the ban? If you guessed zero, you may be one step ahead of this administration. Not to mention that (according to the WSJ) “of 180 people charged with jihadist terrorism-related crimes or who died before being charged,” only 11 came from the seven countries included in the ban. In case you’ve got a head for numbers, that’s about 6%. Also in the vast majority of jihadist violence after 9/11, the perpetrator was a US citizen, not an immigrant.

Psychologists explain this gap between fear and reality in several ways. Our brains are wired to respond emotionally to perceived threats. The information age may be overloading our ability to assess threats rationally. Politicians exploit and foment our fears of terrorism, and “media saturation” is also to blame. Behavioral scientists call it “availability bias” when we give the most weight to what we’re most aware of — even if our awareness is not in line with reality.

Moreover, a study after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing reached a shocking conclusion: “[r]epeated bombing-related media exposure was associated with higher acute stress than was direct exposure.” Did you catch that? People who watched multiple reports of the bombing on TV experienced more acute stress than people who were ACTUALLY AT THE BOMBING. Multiply that by the explosion of fake news and social media, and you see why we have a problem.

The Israelites have a problem this week, too. In the moment of revelation at Sinai, in the midst of thunder and lighting and shofar blasts and smoke, they fall back (or trembled) and stand at a distance. Fearful, they say to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will hear/obey. May God not speak to us, lest we die” (Exodus 20:16).

Moses’s response is confounding: “Do not be afraid, for God has come to test you, in order that fear of Him will be upon you that you will not sin” (Exodus 20:17). It sounds like he’s saying, “Have no fear. God just wants you to fear Him.” — which is hard to parse. On second thought, maybe there’s an answer buried here to the questions I raised about our fear-reality gap.

Moses’s initial assurance — don’t be afraid — responds to the Israelites’ recoiling at the thunder, lighting, shofars, and smoke. Those are the trappings, the pomp and circumstance of revelation, not the substance. It’s the opposite of the Wizard of Oz — ignore the giant floating head, and focus on the man behind the curtain. God is testing them to see if they will fear the right things.

God wants to make an impression with thunder and lightning because God is pretty good at psychology. Fear strengthens memory, as a child psychologist explained in Psychology Today in 2008. “One-off catastrophes like plane crashes or terrorist attacks embed in our memories, while we blank the horrible accidents we see daily on the highway. ‘As a result, we overestimate the odds of dreadful but infrequent events and underestimate how risky ordinary events are.’”

Here’s what I think was going on in that revelation moment. God was creating a memory of deep fear in the people, one they would carry with them, and recount to their children, and record for posterity. But the content of that memory is about not being afraid of the wrong things. God was testing them through fear to remind them — and to remind us — that to be “God-fearing” is to place the truth of God’s presence first, above our own distracting and irrational fears. It is to look past the smoke and mirrors to see what is real.

Jethro’s advice to Moses at the beginning of the parshah rests on similar reasoning. He tells Moses to delegate decision-making, and he lists “God-fearing” and “people of truth” (Exodus 18:21) as criteria for quality leadership. We need our leaders to be God-fearing in this sense: To be aware of their own limitations, to measure their own impulses against reality, to ground decisions in lasting values and not passing whims.

We must first model this kind of holy fear ourselves, if we expect to elevate leaders who are God-fearing people of truth. That is our test. May we live up to the challenge.

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