In the immediate aftermath of the Paris terrorist attack and a none-too-veiled threat from ISIS that New York City would be the next target, clear signs of added security were in abundance last week. Subway stations were heavily guarded, police officers were ubiquitous, and airports were staffed with extra TSA personnel.
In the meantime, however, life went on pretty much as normal. The Macy’s Parade was still attended by throngs of tourists and residents, shopping malls and entertainment sites were as crowded as ever. Indeed, if the threat of a terrorist attack was a concern, most of those in the Big Apple last week seemed committed to moving ahead with their plans to enjoy the holiday season.
And the week passed without an attack or with any indication that one had been attempted or was even in the works.
Meanwhile, in Paris this week, over one hundred leaders from countries large and small gathered to try to reach an agreement to reduce carbon emissions so as to stall the warming of the planet. Many scientists predict that the habitability of major coastal cities is already threatened by melting glaciers that will cause sea levels to rise significantly by the end of this century. Other calamities—reduced arable land, shortages of food and water, increased spread of disease—are all predicted as well.
On the highways this holiday season, drunk drivers will kill many more innocent victims than all of the terrorist attacks to date. And in many communities, the threat that a crazed, suicidal gun owner will kill innocent victims is far greater than that a terrorist plot will claim even a single person.
And then this week, a husband and wife, both Muslims in San Bernardino, California, did their thing in yet another horrific and senseless terrorist mass killing. The FBI is still trying to pin down the couple’s motive, but all signs seem to point to an ISIS-inspired terrorist attack.
So, with the world seemingly becoming less safe by the minute, what should we fear and how much should we fear it?
And the answer is that we probably need to be far more concerned about the everyday travails that constitute the ordinary bumps in the road that all of us encounter in the hustle and bustle of the lives we lead than in any of the very real but remotely probable calamities that I’ve just listed.
Let’s agree on a few points: Life is a puzzle. Pure luck (or happenstance, if you will) is a far greater factor in how much joy we experience and in how much sorrow we are forced to endure. Good health habits cannot guarantee a long life. Inheriting a fortune cannot guarantee a happy one. Love can be a great elixir, but it can fade into distant memories, or even turn to hatred all too frequently.
My point is both simple and profound: If we really consider all the vagaries of living, we are hard-pressed to find any logic to how it all makes sense. We are born to die. Everything in between is rife with risks and nothing we do will alter the ultimate last act. If we are lucky (and, yes, careful, smart, disciplined—use whatever words work for you), we can find fulfillment in something, joy in other things, perhaps even contentment in the overall life we lead.
But it can all be lost in a heartbeat, be it the isolated terrorist attack that claims the lives of 130 in Paris or the freak multiple collision on a highway that claims the lives of a half dozen or the cruelly deranged action of a gun nut that kills 30 college students.
In short, there is much to fear and little benefit in fearing any of it. Yes, terrorism is a real threat, perhaps more so in big cities like Paris or New York than in little hamlets or towns, but the likelihood of being one of its victims is miniscule, even if you are a permanent resident of such a city. And, yes, global warming may destroy the way of life many of us would want our grandchildren to have, but other than being an activist, there is little we can do about it.
Driving is always a risk. Ditto the random act of violence by a would-be mass murderer. And you can add the unexplained diseases that just decide to cripple or kill an otherwise healthy individual. But none of these potential disasters should change our decision to drive or attend a concert or eat an occasional ice cream sundae.
Many find solace in the belief that everything has a purpose, that anything that happens to any of us is part of a grand design by a benevolent creator. That viewpoint can be a powerful antidote to fear. If it really works for an individual, and I have seen it work in many, it can allow a person to withstand the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” with the patience of Job.
Others, myself included, view our existence much less charitably. For us, there is a strange irony in the seeming magnificence of the universe and the apparent irrelevance of any single entity within that universe. Fear for us, and for many others who give no thought to either perspective (faith or the lack of it), is palpable at times. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I was afraid for a few days. And then I decided to bear the ordeal as best I could. I don’t know why I survived and “beat it,” but I think attitude was a big part of it. So maybe that’s the non-believers’ alternative to faith.
In any event, I pushed the fear aside and just decided to get on with my life, however much of it was left to me. And in the process, I went through the therapy and dealt with the pain and all the rest of it because, in the end, I didn’t accept any other alternative.
Call it existentialism. Call it fatalism. Whatever you call it, it pushes fear aside.
Happiness is fleeting. We can feel it one day, and lose it the next. We’re a moody sort anyway, but letting our moods be determined by fear is a losing proposition. There is much to fear, and little benefit in fearing any of it.
Live well. Be smart. Let the chips fall where they may.