Saturday, May 28, 2005

On Fear

I had one of those nights when all my troubles seemed to suddenly rear up and loom enormous in the horizon. There are so many of them that I can't squeeze through into the rest of my life. This happens when I have overdozed on news of a certain kind, in this case the stories about the coming avian flu pandemic.

Several blogs had reader comments on the bird flu and the chance that it might hit home (wherever home might be), and what was most noticeable about some of the comments was the fear people feel and the need to know what to do. What to do? Should we stock medications, food, water? Should we avoid all other breathing creatures? Should we die now so that we won't have to go through this fear again?

Terrorism threats have the same effect on us. The effect is to make us panic and to act in unwise ways, such as cornering the market on duct tape. All this is understandable and human; we need to feel some amount of control over our destinies and perfect passivity doesn't feel like control. Yet the things that we could do are either ineffective or unethical, on the whole. Some of those things make us look greedy and uncaring and even vicious; hoarding antibiotics when others need them now would be one of those. But I can still understand all this, this human mess of fear and the desire to overcome it.

Most of these types of fear are illogical in the probability sense. You, my dear reader, are more likely to die because you didn't use a seat belt or because you smoked or drank or ate the wrong things than in the hands of a terrorist or in the grips of the avian flu. But these other kinds of killers get us one by one, almost invisibly, and besides, we are used to being killed by them. Avian flu or SARS or terrorists are new threats, unknown threats and it is this that frightens us as much as their suddenness. But mainly, I believe, we fear them because they make us feel so passive, so "out-of-control". Hence the out-of-control reactions.

Fear of flying has similar roots. Who cares if cars are less safe than planes; at least in a car you feel in control, even if you're doing backseat driving. Now combine the fear of flying with the fear of terrorism and a smidgen of avian flu fear and what do you get? I don't really even want to think about that one.

None of this aims to belittle the importance of preparing for a possible bird flu pandemic. It would be criminal not to prepare for it, but the job belongs to the health care systems of the affected countries, not to individuals who have been given no official advice. Still, we will never beat all the diseases that nature throws into our face and we will not get out of here alive. In one sense we are indeed totally at the mercy of external events, totally passive, flotsam and jetsam being tossed here and there by the sinister forces of nature. But nature gives us all the good things, too, and if we are careful and clever (and lucky) we can surf her waves without getting caught in the first big one. At a minimum, we can focus on worrying about those things which we can affect rather than tearing our minds apart with all those what-ifs.

So that's what I did last night, worried about the things I can affect, and stayed wide awake until dawn. I have to work a little bit more on the ending to this story.