Of all the human emotions, fear is the most powerful.
Fear of predators kept us alive on the plains of Africa as we evolved from our simian ancestors. If your beliefs are more biblically-based, then you know that fear of outsiders drove a lot of the Old Testament stories about human behavior and actions. Horror is an overwhelmingly-popular movie genre because it lets us experience this very powerful emotion of fear in the relative safety of a theater seat. More relevantly to investing, fear of loss is exponentially more concerning to investors than is the satisfaction of potential gain. Fear is useful to us; it keeps us from doing stupid things like jumping off of cliffs, eating strange-looking foods and insulting people twice as large as we are.
But today our fear is hurting us.
We live in a civilization that has significantly reduced many of the threats people had feared in the past. In most of the ways that can be measured, people around the world are safer than they have ever been from disease, famine, violence, oppression, weather, and economic calamity. And for all of the progress people have made in the rest of the world, it pales in comparison to the progress of we who (by blind luck) happen to live in the United States. Quite literally, there has never been a better or safer time to be a citizen of a country than right here, right now. We Americans have very little to fear.
You'd think this would be obvious; instead, we act as if we are living in the scariest time imaginable.
We fearful people are worried for our own safety more than the safety of those we don't know or understand. We fearful people don't give our money because we worry that someday we will be short, and nobody will help us. We fearful people close our homes to outsiders because we're afraid the outsiders will harm us.
We blame those who look different, who speak differently, and who pray differently for our problems. We are told anybody who is different doesn't share our values. We look to the past for comfort because we don't know what will happen in the future.
When we feel safe, we give. We reach out to those in need, whether next door or around the world. We give our money. We open our homes because we are not afraid that we will be physically harmed by those we let inside. We give our time because we know it's not wasted effort. We think about and plan for the future because we are optimistic. We support leaders who are positive, pro-active, and civil because we are positive, pro-active and civil. We wouldn't tolerate a person who insulted people in our home: how can we contemplate voting for one?
"Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering," a wise, green muppet once uttered in a movie. These days, it would be impossible for him to get past US immigration.
I don't have any magical recipe to change the heart of a fearful person. Some things make me afraid. We all fear things; like I said before, we're born with it. But a constant state of fear is no way to live. What is the point of being alive if we are afraid all of the time?
Why are we so afraid?
Yes, we have problems to face, but are these problems so much more dire than those faced by the Americans who came before us? Our predecessors faced plague, pestilence, world war, terror, and economic disruption. Are we so attached to what we think we have, and who we think we are, that we are willing to throw away compassion, empathy, and hope in the name of self-preservation?
In the pursuit of our human life, are we casting aside our humanity?
My fear is that we are.