Why fearless living is an attitude and what does it have to do with taxis that lack safety belts?
The American couple Eve and John had just settled into the unstable northern Uganda and were invited to a dinner in their friends house. Suddenly, a huge blast penetrated the night and made everybody jump up and drop their forks. Eve got scared but everyone else seemed to be very nonchalant about the event. Their local friend Adam smiled as he always did and said that it was “probably just a small bomb” and that “these things happen all the time where I am from.” When Eve didn’t calm down he hurried to add that it probably was not a bomb at all but maybe just a hand grenade. He told that “there is no point in worrying. Things happen here. That is what? That is life here. Just get on with it.”
Sense of security is a funny notion. It is one of our most basic needs; we need to feel secure in order to feel good. But often it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the actual risks present in one’s life. What we humans are after is a sense of security, not security itself. And this can be found in many different ways. Some use seat belts when driving a car. That’s common back home. Some have a few huge stickers in the car stating that Jesus is the savior and that their fate (and concurrently their driving) is in his hands. This is common here in Central America. In this context using the seat belt would be as if one stated that one doesn’t have faith in God. Both strategies seem to lead to relative comfort for the driver and passengers alike.
It actually seems that the human afraidness is quite constant. Often persons seem to have a certain amount of fear inside of them. The circumstances then dictate where this fear is directed. If there are serious risks in one’s life one worries about them. If there are only minor risks in one’s life one puts the same amount of worry into them. Thus we find absurd examples of protected people loosing their sleep because of some minor spot on their skin while some remote friend of them keeps calm in the middle of a life-threatening civil war. As Proust – perhaps reflecting his own experiences – has said: “One may be afraid of not sleeping and not in the least afraid of a serious duel.”
This explains why it seems that in two different countries where the risks – as measured for example by life-expectancy – are radically different one nevertheless finds people that seem to have equal comfort in living. It is said that in countries with high volcanic activity people are unusually calm. They have accepted that everything they have – their houses, their family, their lives – could be taken away by a random twist of earth. With so many actual risks around them the usage of car safety belt feels like a minor matter and accordingly most car backseats in Central America seem to simply lack even the option of putting the belt on. And you might have guessed that the local driving style would in most cases be classified as high risk or very high risk by any western standards and the statistics show that this actually is the case.
On the other hand, in the protected lifestyle of Western middle class one views car seat belts as a matter of life and death; people condemn deeply and morally those who drive without a seatbelt. Because of the technical development we wealthy westerners have an increasingly strong feeling that life is in our hands. The natural catastrophes, wars, illnesses, infant mortality and so forth that made the life of our ancestors very unpredictable are now tamed to such extent by modern technology and health care that we can on average expect somewhere around 80 years of living.
The problem is that instead of making people worry less this decrease in actual risks makes people worry more about the remaining risks. The most complaining about the dangers and risks of living I have heard from persons that objectively shouldn’t have any worries as compared to the majority of the human population.
Instead of celebrating the freedom that this lack of risks has created we seem to curl up inwards, becoming more and more afraid of ever more minor risks. Nowhere is this more clear than in modern parenting. The psychologist William Damon has noticed how more and more of the playground equipment he played around when he was kid have been forbidden as too risky during the last decades. Dodgeball is banned and monkey bars have been stripped off. He is afraid that the attempt to generate a totally secure environment for our kids might not be good in the end because children need to explore the world and their abilities.
The point to take home is this: A life without fear is not a matter of the external conditions but a matter of attitude. Life is never risk-free. We are all going to die some day. To make the most out of the days before that we should not let fear control our lives. Increased security should lead to increased playfulness – not increased fearfulness. Life is about quality, not quantity. Increased life expectancy is of no use if it doesn’t lead to increased life celebration – even with few risks.
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