Not bad for a guy with a monocle.
No, I am not talking about the Monopoly guy, although he has always been a much overlooked American hero. I mean consider his attributes. This is a man who has four railroads, two utility companies and one hell of a free parking lot but that always made me wonder. How much parking do you need for a horse, an iron and a thimble? I know he has a place on Park Avenue but consider the bright green houses and bright red hotel and it’s pretty obvious that he has spent some time in the hood. He is the American dream, and the whole “get out of jail free” card is absolute brilliance. However, that card is not nearly as effective with modern-day law enforcement as one might think.
But, he is not who I am talking about. I am talking about a president. He was a man who was elected in the midst of an economic crisis. He had been left a nation divided by years of political squabbling and a financial system that had been rocked by graft and accusations of corrupt practices left by the previous republican administration.He expanded government in ways never seen before. He involved the government into the economic system in ways that horrified parts of the society. He was accused of being everything from a womanizer to a secret communist. No, not Obama. I am talking about Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I know what you are thinking. You don’t remember ever seeing a picture of FDR in a monocle. Well the truth is that he didn’t wear one. However, if he could serve four terms as President and pretend he wasn’t in a wheelchair, which he was, then I can say he wore a monocle. It’s only fair.
I don’t want to get into an argument about his policies as president and maybe the country would have pulled itself out of the Depression and won World War 2 even if Wendell Wilkie would have won the presidency. However, I imagine that the Wendell Wilkie memorial would have been really lame. What is not debatable is the effect that FDR had on the psyche of a wounded nation. He single handedly instilled confidence into a nation that was shaken after years of economic turmoil. While his ability as a politician and president may be debatable, his skill as an orator is unquestioned. From his first inaugural address through all of the weekly Fireside chats, he spoke to a nation in a way that reassured the people of how they could save their country from the edge of collapse. Of all his many, well-known lines, there were two examples of his talent with the American language that truly impacted the country. The first was,”So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” and the second was,”You have to keep your pimp hand strong”. I am sure the second was some sort of veiled threat aimed at Hilter and Mussolini but we will leave that for the scholars to sort out. However, the first quote is the one that makes me think. Not about war or the Depression of an era long since passed. But rather, it makes you think that most basic of emotions. That which has been dominating the human soul since we first climbed out of the primordial ooze. It’s about fear.
First, it is necessary to establish as to what are we referring to when we speak of fear. This would be a great time for me to cite something about the historical origin of the word fear or at the very least give a definition that I culled from the Oxford Dictionary. However, since my daughter is using our “good” computer, I am forced to type this on a computer that has been in the family since Friends was on the air and if I have to open one more tab in this browser the computer will freeze like an ice cube in the Arctic, leaving me to stare at the locked up computer screen like a dog trying to decipher algebra. Since I have established the rule that there is no crying on Fridays, I will just skip the well researched and properly documented evidence and just tell you what I think about fear. After all, this blog is called “the things I have learned” not “stuff I just looked up so I could copy and paste”.
Despite what anthropologists may tell you, and yes you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an anthropologist, fear is a relatively new concept. Oh, by the way, if you swing a dead cat and hit a veterinarian, they get really mad. Imagine yourself in the ancient prehistoric world, and despite what that song says, you will not have a yabba dabba doo time,
a dabba doo time, nor a gay old-time. The truth is that it is a world without medicine and limited food and not a single Redbox in the whole damn town. So when cousin Ogg leaves the communal cave to go “drain the velociraptor” , if you know what I mean, and ends up being the hors d’oeuvres at the dinosaur version of Olive Garden you don’t feel fear. Since danger is part of the world you live in, it is accepted as just part of life and fearing things that you cannot avoid is pointless. So when something like that happens, you just shrug your rather hairy shoulders and realize that it means every body get an extra Mammoth meatball at dinner.
As society grew more and more safe and advanced, the knowledge that the world was filled with things that could and probably would eat you began to be replaced with the belief that the world is a safe place and that allowed the brain to develop unreasonable concerns about things that were very remote dangers. That distance from peril was just enough room for the common human psyche to create, all too often, our greatest predators. These predators are our own fears. If you want to see this in action, travel to the deepest remotest jungles of the world. Go to a place that has 86 words for grass and dirt but not a single one for the “over the shoulder boulder holder“. These people eat what nature provides and wear nothing more than a smile. Take one of the fine people who are completely in harmony with nature and have no fear of the world in which they live and put them on a plane for America. You know what they will say? “AH! Big silver sky bird!” After that, and after you teach them English, they will tell you that in their own world they feared nothing. So you take them to any random city,and for God sakes put some clothes on them, and as you begin to indoctrinate them into our civilized culture they begin to let fear creep into their lives. Before you know it, that same fearless jungle man who used to keep a jaguar as a house pet and used a green mamba as a jump rope is now crying like he lost a limb because the sushi place doesn’t have free wi-fi. By distancing ourselves from real dangers, we have allowed artificial fear to enter our lives.
Look at our entertainment choices. Horror movies, documentaries about shark attacks, The Kardasians. We have inundated our culture with things that frighten us. Just last night when watching the Ravens stop the life out of my Jaguars, talk about scary, got to be too much I flipped over to see that the alien movie Signs was on. There is absolutely nothing realistic about an alien invasion but watching the scene where the alien is first seen still gave me the shivers. I shouldn’t fear aliens and I don’t, but for just that moment, my brain served me up a piping hot bowl of scared soup. And you know the most unrealistic thing about the whole movie? If the Mel Gibson character had acted in the movie the way the real Mel Gibson acted on those taped phone calls with his girlfriend that TMZ was playing a couple of years ago, the aliens would have never gotten off the ships.
It is these unrealistic fears that so debilitate us that we can’t do the things necessary to make this world a better place. Take this for example. If you have ever seen the movie Silence of the Lambs, let me ask you a question,”If today, you saw a guy with a cast on his arm trying to load a couch into the back of a van, would you help him?” HELL NO! You would be running the other way faster than Usain Bolt. Because, although the guy may be completely innocent, in your mind you are convinced that 10 minutes after walking up to that van you would be in a basement being told “to rub the lotion on its skin”. I am a completely reasonable, o.k. an occasionally reasonable human being, but I know that if I was standing in a field with Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman that there is no way on God’s green earth that I am going to sign for any U.P.S. package. It’s not just recent cultural entertainment that causes us fear, it is things from the far past that give us all the collective willies. For example, has any one ever seen a single painting of a clown that wasn’t absolutely creepy? And we all know that creepy is just fear with training wheels.
We don’t even have the luxury about being nostalgic about the entertainment that we saw as children. Recently I rewatched the worst of the Jaws films, Jaws 3. To my modern-day brain, it looks like the visual effects were made by pre-schoolers with scissors and construction paper. However, you know that you are going to double check the strength of the glass before you go into that tubey walkway thing through the shark tank at Sea World. I know that sharks are real and always a concern when going swimming in Florida but I shouldn’t have to take a Valium to relax enough to enjoy swimming…..especially when I am in the pool at the gym. But that is what fear does to us, it robs us of our quality of life by making us irrationally concerned with things we can’t control. It even controls how we create our values system. I believe in medicine. I know that there are great men now in labs working to improve the quality and quantity of our years by finding new and unique ways to combat disease. I am all in favor of these innovations. However, I am fanatically opposed to any kind of genetic engineering. No, I don’t fear clones. No, I have no religious objections. My only greatest fear is that somewhere, some genetic engineer will find a way to alter the basic genetic code of primates. And the one thing more scary than a poo flinging Planet of the Apes would be that he could create flying monkeys. Sorry, I just got the shakes.
My fears also follow me into the real world. Recently, I have had to deal with a drug bust in my neighborhood and the Hazmat teams coming out to clean up a large diesel engine oil spill in our storm drains. But, does that scare me? Not at all. What scares me is that when he was moving in, I swear that the new neighbor looks a heck of a lot like Micheal J. Fox. Oh what, that doesn’t scare you? It frightens me to death. Here is a guy that could both travel back in time and turn into a werewolf, and I am pretty sure that the Parkinson’s is just an act to lure us into a false sense of security. Even scarier is the idea is that I could run into the guy who played “Skippy” on Family Ties. I am sorry, it is just too much for me to deal with.
Luckily, any scientist that is reading this, and if you are a scientist reading this then I have to ask what the hell is wrong with you, will tell you that luckily our brains have a technique for dealing with this emotional state of fear. It is called the Fight or Flight response. What this means is that our brains have wired us in one of two ways to deal with scary situations. Either we will fight, stand up and face our fears, or we will take flight, and run away from them. I have always said that ,”I am a lover not a fighter” but I think it’s time to change than tune. I have to stand up and face my fears and defeat them where they live. Besides, I can’t take flight. With my luck it will be like every other flight I have ever taken….
And there will be a kid behind me, kicking my seat the whole way.