Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Fear Trap

Remember the D.C. sniper attacks? Even though I lived on the other side of the country, I found it one of the scariest crime stories ever to dominate the news.

It's always disturbing to think that one fellow human being could turn to murdering another fellow human being, but I could think of almost no manner and method of murder more chilling than in those shootings. The killings were random, insofar as the shooters had no prior connections to their victims, and so it was never personal. But, in another way, it was intensely personal because, with that rifle, the sniper would have been zooming in to get a clear view of the victim each time. Contrast this with a bombing, which is no less awful in its end result—murder is murder—but is, in my mind, less psychologically haunting because it is indiscriminate with regard to who or how many get caught in the blast. In the case of the sniper attacks, meanwhile, the shooter had to select a target to focus in on, zoom in for a clear and steady shot, recognize that it was a human being in their crosshairs, and then pull the trigger anyway.

But, for me, the scariest part was that the victims were all people in the middle of the most mundane parts of their daily lives—pumping gas, loading groceries into the trunk of their car, or even just sitting down to catch a breather. These were things that we all do routinely, and, in that sense, the victims could have been any of us. Just the thought was almost more than my mind could bear. It meant that there were no safe places, no safe moments. And it was little comfort when they finally caught the D.C. snipers. Just as the victims could have been anyone, so too could anyone with a sufficiently sick mind and a sniper rifle become the next serial sniper. And, unfortunately, neither sick minds nor sniper rifles are in short enough supply.

For years after that, every time I went to pump gas, I could not help but consider this nightmare scenario that there might have been some concealed sniper waiting to shoot me. Yes, I went through this EVERY SINGLE TIME.

As I see it, gripped with such fear in even the routine aspects of life, there are only a few different ways to proceed. You can yield to terror, never go out, avoid life as much as possible. Taking this course to its logical extreme, basically you can't even get out of bed in the morning, for fear of anything going wrong. (Or perhaps you would be so afraid of dying in your sleep that you would never go to bed in the first place.) And you mustn't form relationships either, in order to spare yourself having to worry about things maybe happening to other people. This is perhaps neither a very appealing nor a very realistic option for most people.

The second option is to simply get over your fear, try not to worry about things that are out of your control, and just hope and trust that there won't be someone waiting to kill you as you go about your day. It takes a small bit of faith and optimism, but most people would probably agree that this is the "normal" way to live. It's also "reasonable," since the odds are surely against your being sniped at the gas station, although I'm sure that statistic was no consolation for the people who were.

There is another way out of the trap, however. You can proceed as though it doesn't matter whether or not the sniper gets you. You can even operate as though there is always a sniper waiting to shoot you, only you don't allow the prospect of being killed to bother you, because you convince yourself that your life doesn't matter to begin with, so neither does dying. But do not mistake this for pessimism, which involves just as much faith as optimism, only in the opposite direction. The point is not that you do believe the sniper is going to get you. Again, the point is that it doesn't matter one way or another whether there is a sniper at all.

You might suppose, if you pursue this course to its natural end, then you need never do anything, because nothing really matters. It's true that you would never need to do anything, but that does not mean that, under this philosophy, you should do nothing. Because doing nothing is also a meaningless choice, no more deserving of "should" than any other choice would be. You could do nothing, or you could just as well do everything. Neither choice is more meaningful than the other.

Perhaps this last path sounds rather like insanity. It doesn't require faith, doesn't require reason, doesn't really require anything. Perhaps you could not truly consider this to be "living," any more than the hiding at home option.

In practice, I think that many of us do operate this way. Not all the time, certainly, but there are definitely plenty of moments in my own life, when I will come to a minor crossroads, and, instead of actively deciding that one or the other is the right path, I merely recognize that the decision is ultimately meaningless. That doesn't mean that I freeze in place and choose neither path. It usually means that I do one thing but could have done another, and it doesn't really matter that I don't do that but do this. This mainly concerns small decisions for me, like whether to eat at Taco Bell or Costco, or whether to watch sports or take a nap. In such cases, whatever decision I arrive at is not meaningful, at least not more so than whatever I didn't choose.

Anyway, there's a killer on the rampage in Southern California. You've probably heard about it in the news, and I don't want to editorialize on this still-developing story. It reminded me of the D.C. sniper attacks, however, and, although it isn't scary to me in the same way (because I don't think I'd be anywhere on this guy's radar), it occurred to me that I hadn't had those gas station sniper fears in a while.

I think it's because my life has lately been busier, and fuller. It's strange, because I always imagined that those who lived more fully had more to lose and, as a result, were more constantly afraid to lose everything. Meanwhile, so I imagined, those who had nothing, or invested nothing in anything they had, wouldn't have to worry much about losing anything. That's kind of the premise behind the third path out of the fear trap–once you determine that nothing, not even your life, is truly, meaningfully yours, you don't worry anymore about losing any of it. And yet, the reality is that, as my life has become busier, I've been too preoccupied with practical concerns to be dreaming up outlandish nightmare scenarios. It's almost as if, contrary to what I had believed, the more time one spends living, the less they spend worrying about dying. Imagine that.

(Or, alternatively, maybe I'm just so over "meaning" by now, and that has freed me up to live in the moment by instinct and sense, rather than by reason and thought. As long as I don't feel dying, death is consequently not a consideration in my moment-to-moment existence.)

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