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Gnawing fears spring from U.S. narcissism


A sniper roamed free in the nation’s capital for over three weeks. Bomb blasts devastated Bali and the Philippines. Terror continues in the Middle East, and the United States appears bound for war. Television seems to bring a new terror every day, and Americans are frightened. Our fears predate these events and even those of Sept. 11 and will outlast any confrontation between the United States and Iraq. The root of these fears is the uncertainty of life in a society over which people believe they have little if any control.

In 2001, the median household income dropped 2.2 percent (the first decline in almost 10 years) while the number of people living in poverty increased. The stock market has lost over 25 percent of its value in the past two years. Investors are more than $5 trillion poorer today than they were 24 months ago. It’s anyone’s guess how much disasters like Enron and WorldCom are the tip of a corporate iceberg that will further rock, if not sink the American economic luxury liner.

As a result of the market decline, many have put their retirement plans on hold or scrapped them as people realized they will be working for many months if not years longer than expected. These are the fears of the wealthy, however. Few people actually have much money in the stock market to lose. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 50 percent of households had less than $15,000 held in IRA and Keogh accounts in 2000. Hardly enough to contribute to financially secure golden years.

Every day brings news of more job losses, often well-paying positions in manufacturing, construction, technology and transportation. Because health insurance in this country is tied to employment, the loss of a paycheck is a double whammy. How will we afford and secure medical coverage if our employer relocates to a developing nation in search of a low-cost labor force? Will our families’ health care benefits cover a catastrophic illness or accident? Will we have to fight the insurance company every step of the way while a loved one is suffering?

Imagine the anxiety of the 14.6 percent of the population (18 percent in California) who have no health coverage, and the estimated 15 percent whose medical benefits would run far short of paying for a major health problem. The lack of health care is especially acute for minority groups with 19 percent and 33.2 percent of African-Americans and Latinos respectively lacking medical benefits (either private or public). If it were not for government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, the increasingly serious health care problem in this country would be a full-blown crisis.

One survey found that three of four employers plan to pass on increasing health care premiums to employees, some of whom will not be able to cover the additional cost. Diane Rowland, director of the Kaiser Commission of Medicaid and the Uninsured, stated that “We’re getting to the point where uninsurance is not just a poor people’s problem, not just a problem of the down and out, but a middle-class problem.”

Mothers who would rather stay home and care for sons and daughters are forced into the labor market resulting in a greater separation of parents and children. According to The State of Working America 2002-03, “Due primarily to the growing numbers of wives working more hours per week and more weeks per year, the average middle-income, two-parent family now works more than 660 more hours per year -- or 16 more weeks -- than in 1979.”

Although statistics indicate that a child is unlikely to be a victim of a violent crime, when it comes to the safety of one’s son or daughter, people do not take much solace from abstract facts and figures. How many parents lose sleep wondering if their child will be the next victim of a school shooting or neighborhood abduction? A recent study concluded that only the wealthiest 20 percent of families have kept pace financially with rising college tuition. While the middle 60 percent struggle to meet increasing costs, the poorest 20 of the nation’s families are unlikely to see their children become college graduates.

In short, Americans have good reasons to be afraid, and living in fear is made all the more difficult if one must suffer in silence. Males have been socialized to stuff any feelings that might question their masculinity, and the inability to provide for one’s family is such a threat. Females, most notably those in the lower classes, are silenced by their relative powerlessness in a male-dominated society. Professional women voicing their fears only play into the stereotype of the “weaker sex,” and justify the beliefs of macho coworkers.

Our fears are compounded by an ethos of “rugged individualism,” tempered with a karma-like attitude of cause and effect. In other words, whatever happens to someone is primarily (if not entirely) a function of that person’s behavior. Psychologist Melvin Lerner dubbed this orientation the “just-world hypothesis,” the tendency for people to believe that “I am a just person living in a just world, a world where people get what they deserve.” Good fortune and success are linked with virtue while failure and misfortune are a consequence of negative qualities such as laziness, stupidity and immorality.

So if you are poorer or fatter or less secure than is healthy, it’s your fault. You are a loser and got what you deserve. Many Americans constantly fear punishment and humiliation as well as financial disaster. A country that tolerates this situation of fear and quiet despair cannot be called Christian.

To escape this fear, we must be ready to share what we have. Either as a result of ignorance, apathy, escaping into a vast popular culture, and/or being overwhelmed by the demands of daily life, we fail to realize that our gnawing fears are a consequence of the selfishness and narcissism of our society. Surely the United States has the resources to alleviate the fear of lacking a job, health care, education and a secure old age.

But to address these fears, we need to recover and nurture the insights of 1 John 18-20: “In love there can be no fear, but fear is driven out by perfect love; because to fear is to expect punishment, and anyone who is afraid is still imperfect in love. We are to love, then, because he loved us first. Anyone who says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother or sister is a liar, since a person who does not love his brother or sister that he or she can see cannot love God whom he or she has never seen.”

We cannot adequately address the fears of the world, while we still live in fear ourselves.

Gary Macy teaches in the department of theology and religious studies, and George Bryjak teaches in the sociology department at the University of San Diego.

National Catholic Reporter, November 08, 2002