On the Christmas cards we received last week angels are quoted as saying to the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid.”

To which I want to reply, “Yeah, right. You live in heaven where, I assume, there is a ban on assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines.”

It does feel like there is more to be afraid of these days, doesn’t it? Go ahead and prioritize the following list: mass shootings in schools, a climate change apocalypse, World War III starting in Ukraine, long Covid, violence in our neighborhoods, the end of democracy, big government taking away our freedoms, too much religion, too little religion. … 

Are we becoming paranoid or is the world really going to hell? During the months preceding the November election, Democrats fanned the flames of fear by repeating that democracy itself was at stake. Republicans warned that Biden was steering the nation on a course leading to godless Soviet-style communism.

“But, but it’s not fear mongering,” say people at both extremes of the political spectrum. “The world really will come to an end if the other side gets/stays in power.”

So what are we to do with our fears?

Conducting a fact check

One thing we can do when we feel fear rising inside us, is to do a fact check. For example, mass shootings account for 0.1% of firearm homicides in this country, according to the Congressional Research Service, while suicides make up 54% of deaths by firearms.

The National Center for Educational Statistics reported that in the 2019-2020 school year there were 98,000 public schools and 30,000 private schools, while Education Week says that so far this year there have been 34 school shootings, a record.

If we do the math, the chance of there being a mass shooting at the Forest Park Middle School is 1 in 3,500 or .0003.

When I was a kid, we used to do fire drills at my elementary school. The tone was one of due diligence, not fear. If we feel like the sky is falling, we need to do a fact check. Is the sky falling or an acorn hitting us on the head or something somewhere in between?

External vs. internal

Demagogues manipulate people’s fears by blaming someone or some group external to those who are experiencing fear. Insecure people find it easier to blame something outside themselves instead of owning their own emotions. Perpetrators of road rage are a good example. It’s easier to say “you made me mad” than to say “I was having a bad day and I overreacted.”

That’s not to say that fear is always an insecure reaction. What secure people do is when they feel fear, they ask themselves, “How much of my fear is coming from the outside and how much is a result of my still unpacked baggage?”

Are we spoiled?

Scott Peck begins The Road Less Traveled by declaring, “Life is difficult.” Most of us who read the Review have it pretty good — if you compare our lives to living east of Austin Boulevard or, more dramatically, in Ukraine or Somalia. 

In The Big Sort, Bill Bishop argues that we tend to migrate to locations where people see the world through the same lenses we are looking through. In Forest Park you might say we are spoiled. To a large extent we’ve had the means to escape the realities that frighten others on a daily basis. So in a sense, our emotional immune systems are vulnerable.

Transcending fear

Fear is a normal emotion, but there are some among us who have put themselves in emotional/spiritual places where they are not controlled by it. I’m thinking of Ken Gross and the 30-some officers in the Forest Park Police Department and Chief Chiappetta and his firefighters. 

When angels told the shepherds to not be afraid, they did not remove the tyrant King Herod from his throne or Caesar Augustus from power. In fact, Joseph had to take the holy family to Egypt and become refugees for a time because of Herod’s slaughter of the “innocents.”

The baby in the manger didn’t change the world. It can still be frightening. What he did was to give people what Psalm 138 calls “strength of soul.” If you want examples of what I mean, read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and a host of other witnesses, many of whom lived courageous lives under the radar.