December 24, 2006
Viral Fear: The Disease of the American SoulBy Judith Acosta
There is a wonderful interpretation of mankind's fall from Eden by Scott Hahn. He asks the question so many of us forget to ask: While Eve was trying to fend off the serpent's temptations, where was Adam?
As we know, the story had the serpent, who "was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made," approach Eve while she was vulnerable in order to convince her that it was perfectly okay to not only want the fruit of the tree which was in the midst of the garden, but to do the only thing that had been forbidden to the first man and woman: to touch it and then to eat it. "You will not die," he said even though God Himself had said otherwise. And, as everyone knows, she bought what the serpent was selling, ate it and passed it to Adam, who also ate it. Thus the endlessly straight road on which we started was bent and all life on earth now ends in death.
So, again, where was Adam that whole time? What was he doing as the serpent worked Eve? Well, we know from the Hebrew that the serpent was addressing two people (it was using the plural form of the word "you") and that Adam was in fact there with Eve. In addition, as soon as Eve took a bite she turned and handed the fruit to her husband, who passively took it, and "he ate." So, we have to conclude that he was present the whole time that the serpent manipulated Eve, but that he was silent. Why?
Now, this is the big idea in Mr. Hahn's presentation of the First Story and the nature of creation. Man's big sin, or, if you will, man's failure wasn't sexual desire, it was cowardice. It was fear.
We know a few things about fear of this variety. It immobilizes. It mutates character. It distorts perception and ultimately subverts judgment. It makes us run when we should stand and stand when we should run. It makes us disobey when we need to obey and obey when we need to rebel. It made Adam, the First Man, the man with whom God Himself had a vivid and intimate relationship, hide like a baby and act like a fool. Consider if you will the monumental confusion Adam must have experienced to have turned to the Creator and said, "Nope." In fear we are clearly not thinking right. We are not ourselves.
From that moment then to this moment now fear has been the greatest, most subtle saboteur of faith, honor, and connection to the divine. And, while we may not recognize it, it is a battle in which we are engaged this very second with an enemy who is no longer masquerading as a serpent, but is clever nonetheless. And we are surrounded.
The New Serpent: Media as Viral Fear's Medium
America is driven by many things, but more than almost anything else (except fear) it is driven by ambition. Under that rubric I include greed and power. It is the downside or flipside to being such a courageous, inventive and heroic nation. Our desires are so great, we outpace our own abilities to both produce and consume. Our economy and our cultural activities are built squarely on that foundation and in order for growth to continue, our desires and capricious appetites (which we are convinced are real needs) must likewise continue to grow. We must come to believe that we have to have that new car even though our "old" one is only 3 years old and perfectly functional. We must be sufficiently motivated to buy that new high-definition TV even though it will mean digging ourselves into a hole of debt so deep we'll have to work two jobs and have no time to watch it. We must believe without doubt that buying a new dress will make us more lovable, more appealing and more desirable even though we have done nothing to change the way we treat others. We must be convinced of the reasonability of painful, dangerous surgery to lift, tuck, and puff even though it will give us no deeper joy and no relief from the self-loathing that is our most gruesome secret.
We believe we need these things and more. We stand on line for hours, perhaps days in cold, wet weather waiting for the newest release of a video game. We fight one another to be the first on line for incredibly ugly-looking dolls at Christmas time and pay a premium for the privilege. We spend money most of us don't have on salves, scents, pills and potions to make us appear young, give us long-lasting erections at 70 years of age and pretend we can ward off the inevitable.
Why? Because we're afraid. But of what are we so afraid? In a country of greater comfort and security than any other in recorded history, we're thoroughly afraid of everything: of being alone, of being intimate, of being too skinny, of being too fat, of being too young, of being too old, of having too little, of having too much, of changing too fast and of being too still. We're afraid of being alive and we're terrified of dying. The irony - and the point on which this all pivots - is that our fears are precisely commensurate with the distortion in our perceived needs. The more we feel we need, the more afraid we are of not having it, being it or doing it. The more afraid we are, the more we need. And so it goes.
Of course, the colossal machine that is corporate America (and soon to be corporate Earth) is fully aware of this, capitalizing on our propensity to be afraid literally every chance it gets. Fear is promulgated and manipulated to sell us ideas, products, positions, loyalties and lifestyles. And, if you take a good look around you, they're doing it very, very well. Viral fear is the virus of the new millennium and it has spread across the American landscape like a pandemic with the media playing the role of Typhoid Mary.
The ads, the programming, the internet, even the cadences used by talk show hosts and newscasters - they all cast their oars into the current, pushing us further up and deeper into the rapids. What follows is a sampling of headlines heard in less than 15 minutes on an ordinary Saturday morning on cable television:
In compiling these examples, I realized I couldn't even type fast enough to catch all the fear-inducing posturing whether it was coming in the form of advertising or news. And I type at nearly 100 words-per-minute. It was relentless, incredibly fast and awfully captivating.
That last part was the worst part, the tragic joke of it: Not only are we afraid, but we're fascinated by our own fear. A culture of rubberneckers, we tune in and get turned on. We go to horror movies, jump off bridges tethered by a bouncing rubber rope and suckle on scandal. For those whom that is no longer enough, we now announce a new gift from cable television: the Fear Channel. I kid you not. You are now free to terrify yourself 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Casting Out Fear
From that first bite of that first fruit, people have been afraid. And there has been a remedy for it as we heard in the Sermon on the Mount:
The remedy, the antidote to viral fear and generalized anxiety is faith and a reversal of the value system that has America in a choke-hold.
In one way or another we are commanded over and over and over again to "fear not" and trust God. In fact, we hear it in exactly those words every time an angel appears to someone in the Bible, usually at those precarious times when God is calling for a leap of commitment or a decision to follow Him over an abyss. Fear and faith seem unable to co-exist, incapable of being released in the same breath. Yet, we know that fear is a reasonable response to certain situations and that the greatest of Biblical and historical characters have been afraid. Mary and Joseph were afraid in the manger. Moses was afraid when he was called to lead an entire people into a new world. So, what does that mean? How can we be told not to be afraid when we're such fragile, needy beings in a fallen world and even the greatest of us have succumbed?
From my point of view, not all fear is the same. There is the fear that furthers our survival and there is the fear that is futile. The latter is a threat of monumental proportions in our culture. It is pathological, pervasive, and addictive. It keeps us from doing that which we need to do to survive (or to thrive) and enables us to justify that which we ought never to do. It undermines faith and corrupts our thinking. We see enemies where there are none and ignore the enemies that are truly mortal dangers. We buy and collect incalculable mountains of "stuff" to surround ourselves with ourselves, hoping to keep out the reality of our condition - that we are mortal, that a life without meaning is wretched and that we are rapidly becoming couch-ensconced cowards. We watch television for hours a day, play video games until our brain scans are radically altered at the cellular level and do what Adam did while the serpent wrapped itself around Eve's soul: We hide.
The moral of the story is clear: If we don't step out from behind the tree and take care of business, the story will be repeated and this time Americans will be playing the leading roles.
Jude Acosta is a psychotherapist, and author of The Worst is Over, and The Next Osama (forthcoming)