Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Irrational Fears

Snakes and tarantulas and scorpions. These animals are pretty common in Texas where I live. On separate occasions, we have found all three inside our house. But we are still alive. Snakes don’t normally kill you. Sometimes they curl up on your front porch. Sometimes, as happened to us recently with a rattlesnake, they sun themselves on a back porch, but they rarely try to kill you. The rattler went flying across the yard when we used a shovel to throw him off the porch. The rat snake that was on the front porch mentioned above—well that was a big one, and animal control apparently had to come to remove that hideous hisser.

But, even if there is the possibility of danger, one can fear snakes, or scorpions, or even tarantulas quite irrationally. Or anything, for that matter. When I was a lad, I was afraid of tunnels. I was sure, when Elaine would drive through the tunnel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s North Eastern Extension, we would become trapped and die. But we did not.

And thus, I would suggest, if we are going to indulge our fears, let us do so exclusively with rational fears. Those would be, for example, when your airplane loses its hydraulic system and starts swerving, and when you land there are fire trucks all over the tarmac. Okay, that one’s real. (And, yes, that actually happened to me.) Or when you find out you have cancer, or … ( you can fill in the blanks from here). And terrorism, too, I think is not an entirely irrational fear, but it is in fact unlikely to happen to you. Indeed, terrorism does strike fear into the hearts of even pretty rational people. So what can we do?

FDR famously said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” I think that quote perhaps sounds a bit cleverer than it in fact is. I think what he probably meant by it is that we must trust our institutions. It’s simply too easy to become cynical and indulge ourselves in conspiracy theories about our institutions. Rather, let’s believe that, even if our institutions, such as the press, sometimes go overboard—they can swing like pendulums between the far left (I won’t mention any particular cable news network or nationally broadcasting companies) or the far right (I won’t mention any PETA inspired names)—but they are trying (or at least some of the honorable journalists who work for any of those networks are trying) to keep America free by working hard to be the credible (at least sometimes) entities of the collective free press. We have to believe, too, in the democratic values that express themselves in wacky ways, like governors who hold extreme positions on the west coast or senators who hold the opposite extreme positions in the southwest. But the institutions, those are there for a reason and, if St. Paul is right—and he was writing under much greater duress than anyone in America ever has—they are at the very least overseen from Above (Romans 13:4).

Is this the case in every country? Certainly not. But it is the case here, so don’t lose heart, especially if you’ve been doubting your institutions, and indulging in fears larger than a tarantula but smaller, presumably, than the snake on the man’s front porch in Morgan’s Point, Texas. It was seven feet long. Okay, I agree; maybe that man’s fear was rational after all.

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