Living Fearlessly

Sunday’s LA Times op-ed pages carried essays detailing three women’s responses to the recent Japanese earthquakes and tsunami, and what struck me was the thread of fear that ran through them.

Amy Wilentz wrote that despite the assurances of all the experts, she just wasn’t able to move beyond her fear of radiation poisoning from the Japanese nuclear disaster, even though she lived an ocean away in Los Angeles. So she brow-beat her physician (in a manner of speaking) into prescribing potassium iodide pills for her and her family – just in case. This admittedly intelligent woman, a writer, was so wound up about emails she received from non-experts that she did something totally irrational.

I remember enough from high school and college science classes to know about radioactive isotopes and sieverts and half-lives. I’m also a careful reader and a critical thinker. News reports on the nuclear disaster unfolding in Japan repeatedly spoke about the unlikelihood that damaging radiation would come across the ocean and fall in Southern California. Tokyo, only 150 miles away from the site, experienced no significant radiation from the blasts. But thousands of miles away, people in California were freaking out.

A friend of mine in London even sent me an email urging me to go out and buy potassium iodide pills. This, despite the fact that taking such pills when there is no danger of radiation poisoning can actually be harmful.

The other essays, written by novelists Cheryl Holt and Diana Wagman, both of whom live in Southern California, were also rife with fear. Holt’s, it seemed to me, was the most rooted in reality, though. She wrote about living on the Oregon coast and realizing after the 2004 Indonesian quake and tsunami that she would never be able to outrun a tsunami if a devastating quake struck in the ocean near her town. She ultimately moved to Southern California, in part because of that. But she wasn’t irrational about it.

Wagman describes how the world’s disasters, natural and manmade, are ever-present in our media-saturated world. She watches her daughter fall apart in the onslaught, and feels her fear.

Why does it bother me that all these writers are women? I have a hard time imagining a man writing such fear-filled pleadings. Is it the maternal pull, the constant worry that mothers feel over the welfare of their children and families? What happened to the Age of Reason? Why is our culture so woefully incapable of risk-assessment?

Last May I interviewed Barry Glassner, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California and the author of “The Culture of Fear, Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things.” He told me then that when people succumb to fear, they are being manipulated by someone who stands to benefit from our anxiety.

“The main advice I give is ask yourself who’s trying to benefit from making you afraid,” Glassner said at the time.

It’s important to keep things in perspective. The fight-or-flight response is triggered in the ancient reptilian brain, but there is opportunity to bring higher thinking to bear, thinking that is based on true risk assessment.

If there is a 1 percent chance of something happening -- say, a terrorist attack -- the opposite perspective is there is a 99 percent likelihood that one will not happen. Yet fear of a terrorist attack is repeatedly recounted as one of the top fears Americans share today.

A little over a year ago, I made a conscious decision to live without fear. I had been through divorce, loss of a business, bankruptcy, and the death of my mother (who lived with me) in the space of a year. Several years of therapy had helped me through. But it wasn’t until I realized I had no control over any of it that I finally let go and started to live for each day.

I guess you could say I’m an existentialist. A fatalist, even. One cannot control the world around us, no matter how mightily we try. So why spend emotional energy worrying about things that may or may not happen? If something awful happens, you have the opportunity at that moment to decide how to respond to it. It’s all about the response. And a critical assessment of risk. But living in fear that something might occur? Life’s too short for that.