Fear, I had to note during the recent un-Rapture brouhaha, makes people do weird things.
Sure that the end of the world was at hand, people cashed in their 401(k)s to help a radio evangelist (who had a bad track record as far as predictions go) make sure the word got out on his latest bad try.
People quit their jobs, separated their families, moved across the country and did a host of other dumb things based on the prediction.
On a sadder note, people had their pets put down while others capitalized by offering to provide post-Rapture pet care for pets left behind by their sinless and therefore absentee owners.
And, even more sadly, one California woman cut her throat and those of her two young daughters (all survived) because, apparently, she thought they were not going to be Raptured and she wanted to spare all of them a few months of unpleasantness before going to hell … forever.
As I was musing over that, I saw an item in the Times giving the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's annual hurricane predictions, which seem to be always dire and usually wrong. This year we are supposed to have 12 to 18 named storms, three to six of which will be major hurricanes.
That did it. I was tired of people always telling me what I had to be afraid of. I picked up the newspaper and headed for my den to expound thereupon, but was stopped in my tracks by Sanjay Gupta on CNN telling me that some experts think (again) that cell phones cause brain tumors.
I poured a cup of decaf coffee (because I am afraid of strokes) and put some skim milk in it (because I am afraid of heart attacks), watched carefully where I placed my feet as I got behind the desk (because I am afraid of falls) and sighed because I was facing a computer (of which I am also afraid).
We are assaulted daily by dozens to hundreds of fear messages. People want us to be afraid of drinking from reused plastic bottles (this a few weeks after people in Dade City had to boil their water because of fears that it might have been contaminated with bacteria). We are told to be afraid of not getting enough, or getting too much, of a host of medicines, vitamins and supplements.
One friend of mine wonders that if we all listen to our doctors and give up salt, whether we will all die of iodine deficiency, since much of our iodine comes from using iodized salt. Actually, I found out, scientists are wondering the same thing.
We have to be afraid of vitamin D deficiency from not getting enough sun … and skin cancer from getting too much.
My house is going to either burn down if I don't have enough smoke alarms, or collapse into a sinkhole (for which I should have insurance, although if I lived in an area where that was likely, nobody would sell me the coverage). But I can be comforted by the fact that termites will probably have eaten it by then if I don't have adequate pest control.
My children will either hate me for being too strict or disrespect me for being too easy. My boss (if I had one) would be unimpressed if I wasn't aggressive enough, or threatened if I was too aggressive.
Listen sometime to television news teases. They frequently run to questions like: "Is there a serial rapist loose in your neighborhood?" "Do you know the seven warning signs of cancer?" "Are we facing a cyber-attack from our enemies?"
I spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business defending against the criticism that all that is ever printed is bad news. There are several answers to that charge. One is that it is a good thing to be living in a society where bad stuff is rare enough that it is newsworthy. If the lead headline of the day is, as it once was in Chicago, that nobody had been murdered for more than 24 hours, you are in trouble.
What constitutes good and bad news is also often highly subjective. Farmers need rain; the tourist industry dreads it. Ice storms are almost universally bad news … unless you own an auto body shop. A decrease in crime is great, unless you are a sheriff trying to convince the county commission that you need more crime-fighting bucks.
Want to see mass panic? Let the agencies "fighting" it win the War on Drugs. That will upset drug dealers for sure, and when it comes to getting more money from the government to fight a nonexistent problem, how long it will take the DEA to become the ?EA.
And finally, publications and broadcast outlets promising to provide nothing but good news all have one thing in common: They all go broke, quickly.
Theoretically, you could produce a daily newspaper that contained every bowling score, every little league and youth soccer score, the minutes of every service organization's meetings and full-blown accounts of every single class in every school that behaved well the previous day. My guess is it would weigh around 150 pounds, and cost about $16,000 per week and nobody would advertise in it or read it. If you think I am exaggerating, try reading the Congressional Record for a week or two without deciding you would rather shave your head with a cheese grater.
I am probably on my way to, or already in Colorado as you read this. I will spend the summer leading an almost hermit-like existence, meditating, soaking in hot springs and, largely, dodging my responsibility to be scared spitless of everything in my life and environment. I will go for weeks without seeing a daily newspaper. For one entire summer, I lived in a tent and didn't watch more than an hour or two — total — of television.
Since then, my landlord put in a satellite dish and a TV set, and I wish I could say that I never use it except to watch the History and Weather channels, but we all know I am going to sneak an occasional peek at one of the 24-hour news networks, because, in between the water-skiing squirrels and the freak show that is shaping up to be the 2012 presidential race, there might actually be news.
I could skip it.
But I am afraid to.