Fear of Self and Others

Here’s an article that starts off interesting and wanders basically into a defense of wearing face masks during COVID-19. The initial part of the article is interesting, documenting scientific evidence of what common sense and cultural shifts should make clear to most anybody – human beings are communal creatures and as our contact with others (known or unknown) decreases, our well-being decreases.

Obviously COVID-19 has been a huge source of social isolation. Physical distancing might be helpful in reducing the transmission of the Coronavirus, but it’s definitely harmful in fostering a climate of fear, where anyone who gets to close or – God forbid! – sneezes or brushes against us leaves us feeling violated and endangered. The self-righteous pride some people take in shaming others they think are too close is chilling.

Masks also lead to isolation. Difficulty in reading facial expressions complicates even mundane and traditional interactions. Add to that the added difficulty of being heard and hearing others clearly through masks and another barrier to interaction arises. And for many places who rely not only on masks for both sides of the transaction but also those thin sheets of plastic between everyone? It’s barely possible to communicate a food order or a service request, let alone engage in a conversation.

Those most at risk of complications from COVID-19 are further isolated as assisted living facilities and senior care facilities exclude any access between residents and family members.

And even family members treat one another with distrust and fear these days, demanding COVID testing and other measures just to allow for a family visit. Certainly this is a time of extreme and unhealthy isolation. I won’t bother here whether or not such measures are necessary or useful for reducing transmission of the Coronavirus to some people – let’s assume they are. But let’s also admit and acknowledge they are most definitely detrimental to the psychological and emotional well-being of literally everyone.

But this is only the latest stage in an increasing isolation mentality in American culture. Studies long before COVID-19 indicated Americans were lonelier and reported feeling more isolated, despite a plethora a technological apps and programs that should enable us to be better and more frequently connected with all manner of family and friends. As our ability to connect with others has risen, there has been a corresponding decrease in the desire to do so.

The idea of stranger danger that arose in the 80’s has dominated our social awareness and perception of one another. As reporting news from distant locations became easier and cheaper, we perceived a rise in the number of child abductions. The fact that we were hearing about more of them in more locations contributed to this perception, even though statistical data eventually demonstrated there was no increase in the number of abductions (or rather child abductions were decreasing as a whole). Further data also demonstrated that contrary to the stranger danger mantra, which taught (and teaches still) children to be fearful and wary of anyone they don’t know, the vast majority of child abductions were not perpetrated by perverted ice cream truck drivers or other malevolent strangers but rather by trusted family members and friends of family – people the abducted child already knew.

But despite the data, the perception of strangers as a danger persists. We distrust others. We worry excessively about our children in a dangerous world where biking the street or walking to the store are now seen as worrisome activities. My generation wasn’t parented that way, and yet I suffer with a certain degree of anxiety about my children’s safety, despite knowing they need age-appropriate independence to stretch their wings and prepare them for lives as healthy adults.

This also causes ourselves to see ourselves through fearful eyes. We hesitate to reach out to strangers, fearful we will be perceived as a potential threat or danger, because that’s how we would view others – at least momentarily. The fear of being perceived or even called out as inappropriate or pervy or disconcerting pushes us back into our shells, keeps us a safe distance (whatever that means) from others and from life-changing interactions with people – just because we haven’t met them yet.

This is not accidental. As I’ve mentioned before, watching of The Twilight Zone series (or probably any mid-century television series) provides amazing glimpse of an American culture where the stranger was welcomed and indulged to an extent I find incredulous – even when that stranger exhibited odd behavior. No, our fear of others and our fear of ourselves in turn has been cultivated. And while the original intentions might have been good, there is considerably greater harm being done now than mere isolationism.

That fear of the other and the unknown is now be exploited for political ends. We are pitted us against them. We’re no longer Americans but rather ideological marionettes expected to leap and dance in anger and indignation at whatever strings are next tugged. We are expected to view anyone who doesn’t hold with our party not as another thoughtful citizen who might have some good reasons for their perspective, but as a threat and a danger to our way of life or to the well-being of a vague set of marginalized persons. And while good argument can be made we have always tended to do this in American politics (hence our two-party system, despite explicit warnings against such an arrangement by some of our Founding Fathers), the situation has reached a new level of vitriol because of our social isolation from one another and our inability and unwillingness to engage with someone we don’t know and who might disagree with us. Social media has only reinforced this echo chamber effect, further discouraging us from interacting not only with strangers, but with people we know, simply because they don’t agree with us.

We’re designed as social creatures, not simply evolved that way out of some sort of obscure, genetically-driven guide towards greater personal success. To deny both our need for connection to one another as well as our need for connection to the divine is to damage ourselves and by extension those around us. Extreme measures may be necessary for a time to protect against health emergencies and other threats, but the there’s a deeper level of isolation and estrangement that has been at work a lot longer than 2020. Rethinking our relation to the stranger is a good place to start in backtracking to a point that we can talk to not just strangers but people we know full well don’t agree with our parenting styles or our political choices or our belief (or lack thereof) in a higher power.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s