Fear is an Emotion. Risk is a Statistic.
What we fear is typically not based on risk per se; as a species, we rarely fear things in proportion to their riskiness. For whatever reason we are hardwired to ignore commonplace risks but fear novel or dramatic ones.
Two examples of dramatic fears:
- Dying in an airplane crash. On one trip, I remember a pilot saying on the intercom after we landed: “Now that the safe part of your journey is over…” That has stayed with me as a reminder of the disparity between my (relative) nervousness about flying but my utter lack of nervousness about driving.
- Being mauled or killed while hiking by a cougar or a bear.
A NY Times link on Google search states the risk of dying in an automobile accident in the US as 1 in 103. Cancer 1 in 7. Heart disease 1 in 6. Why are we not (generally) obsessed with these risks? I would guess it’s some combination of: 1) there’s nothing we can do about them; 2) we’ve already done everything we can do about them; 3) we are used to them; or 4) the value of positive experiences (taking trips in our car, or perhaps enjoying those French Fries) outweighs any thought of risk.
I’m guessing we are hardwired to fear a novel risk (such as the coronavirus) in order to motivate behavior. as stated in reason #2 in the paragraph above. It is intelligent to take action to reduce risk, both for ourselves (survival instinct) and others (moral magnanimity).
The problems come when we forget:
- it’s impossible in the real world (with anything I can think of) to reduce that risk to 0.
- our fear and our proactive behavior are not synonymous. There is a point at which we may have to grapple with the existential terror of our fear and acknowledge that there is no logical action or thought that can completely extinguish it. Because it is an emotion and has to be dealt with, at some point in the process, in its own sphere.
So once we have done what is reasonable and possible to do, then we need to try to move on, more or less, to points #1, 3 and 4 above. We can thank our fear for being part of the process to motivate strategic and decisive action and a change in our individual and collective behavior. But letting fear drive us further — to make us believe that we are not fundamentally OK without an elimination of risk — is to let fear become a runaway train of restrictive non-life.
I like the example of cars. We make people take driver’s ed, we have driver’s tests, we have seatbelts and airbags. But there is an assumption that driving is a necessary risk to enable us to work, to enjoy our lives.
I look at our collective reaction to coronavirus, and I think we have to ponder whether there is a possibility that fear — manifested specifically in a seeming attempt to eliminate all risk — has become that runaway train. I don’t think we can be sure unless we step back from time to time and just sit with our existential fear of death. For a moment.
Luckily we have the example of driving to remind us of how differently we often operate in the face of risk. We can be, more or less, unafraid of something that carries a significant risk, every time we do it. We can believe that life is a vibrant counterbalance to fear of loss. We can operate with confidence in a dangerous world, because going places, seeing things, is valuable.
Have we become obsessively enamored with coronavirus and forgotten all those vibrant counterbalances? I think we have. When the CDC and AAP have argued for in-person schooling for Fall 2020, how is it that school districts are placing management of risk above those recommendations? That to me is a sign of the runaway train of fear. Fear that has jumped its boundaries and moved aggressively into a realm that should be the province of logic, strategy, and action. At a certain point, fear, if it does not know its place, is not smart. It becomes, ironically, a life-killer. Protecting us from physical risk by “killing” everything but our bodies.