“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” – Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933 Inaugural Address1
I’m always amused by parents who keep their children on a leash. I used to think that treating a child like a German shepherd was only appropriate in crowded, pedophile-rich places (subway stations, Times Square, Montana2), where one could easily lose a kid in the throng. But just the other day, I saw a father calmly walking his toddler son in Target. Target! (It wasn’t even a busy Target.) The kid kept trying to run off to the toy section, only to be bungee-boomeranged back to his dad. It was actually rather funny to watch a guy play paddle ball with his son… except it was with his son. However, when I mentioned the absurdity of the scene to my mom on the phone, she immediately leapt to the father’s defense: “If parents don’t keep an eye on their children nowadays, the child will get kidnapped.” She went on to list several examples from Dateline in which un-leashed children were snatched away from their negligent parents.
(Thankfully, I never had to suffer the indignity of a leash. I merely have memories of my parents telling me to stay close unless I wanted to be abducted and sold to a Nike shoe factory. When I got older and questioned the likelihood of this ever happening, my mom was adamant. “They want Asian children because of your tiny fingers. For the laces.”)
My parents were great at manipulating fear as a weapon. After all, fear is entirely a product of nurture.3 I grew up fearing almost everything: snakes, spiders, roller coasters, big dogs, strangers, light poles, peas, the deep end of the pool, my own closet… I feared it all. If you asked my parents, this was a good thing. They would say it’s better to be fearful than cavalier. Fear makes you more cautious, and caution makes you less likely to end up dead or with a venereal disease. If it were up to them, they would encourage all parents to subliminally inculcate fears in their children like this:
Age 6: “Yes, the boogie man is real, and he chops off children’s heads. The good thing is, he’ll only chop off your head if you don’t eat your vegetables.”
Age 13: “Yes, ninjas are real, and they will attack you in your sleep. The good thing is, they’ll only attack you if you’ve been drinking or smoking.”
Age 16: “Yes, there really is a serial killer running around town. And he will kill us unless you take out the trash. So do it already!”
Thankfully I managed to avoid permanent scarring, outgrowing most of my fears as I got older. But the funny thing is, my parents kept theirs. Even now, my mom always offers warnings about grave dangers that are immediate threats to my life. Her long list of “Things to avoid” includes: the beach (tsunamis), the sun (cancer), left turns (inevitable car accidents), men with tattoos (you will get attacked and go into a coma), baseball games (you will get attacked and go into a coma), and drinking bottled water that’s been left in the car (you will die).
Since now I’m living 3,000 miles away in California, her worries have intensified: I’m almost certainly going to encounter a life-threatening earthquake, wildfire, mudslide, or errant Botox injection. Scumbag LA agents and managers will eat me up and spit me out. The Hollywood sign will tumble down and leave me trapped in my apartment, forcing me to eat my own arm to survive. The only thing that could possibly keep me safe out here is marriage. Marriage (and grandchildren) will save me from all such ills.
My mom maintains that her concerns are just the normal fears of all parents. And I suppose she’s justified, in some way. After all, parenthood is cruel: having a child is like planting a seed and watching it grow for 18 years into a big, tall tree… and then having the tree ripped out and hurled across the country, fending off wood chippers and paper plants along the way. So I can understand the anxieties of those parents who put leashes on their kids and who hound you about getting a first aid kit with flares for your car… at least you know they care.
And truth be told, there is a value to keeping a healthy dose of fear alive, reminding us of our own mortality, encouraging us to optimize the time we have on this earth, pushing us to live life to the fullest… because, like my mom4 says, we’re all just hanging on by a thread… a thread that may be contaminated with leftover radiation from Japan.
1. With apologies to Frankie D, WHAT WERE YOU TALKING ABOUT? Sure, your speech went a long way in lifting post-Depression spirits, but if we really think about it, you essentially said the equivalent of: “The only thing we have to celebrate is celebration itself,” or “The only thing we have to eat is food itself.” Okaa-ay. Worst famous quote ever.
2. Montana is the state with the highest number of registered sex offenders per capita, according to the sex offender registry. Go Montana!
3. Actually, let me rephrase that: surplus fear is entirely a product of nurture. Naturally, all human beings are predisposed to certain baseline fears that threaten our survival, like hurricanes, sharks, and other things that we name professional sports teams after. It’s nurture that separates the notoriously fearful (like Chicken Little) from the notoriously fearless (like Chuck Norris).
4. And Nostradamus. And the Mayans. 2012, baby!… I am terrified.