Have you heard the chorus of right-wingers blaming the “Jews and secularists” for ruining Christmas? One of the best pieces on this phenomenon so far is Frank Rich’s column in last Sunday’s \New York Times\. Here’s a taste:
“‘Are we going to abolish the word Christmas?’ asked Newt Gingrich, warning that ‘it absolutely can happen here.’ Among those courageously leading the fight to save the holiday from its enemies is Bill O’Reilly, who has taken to calling the Anti-Defamation League ‘an extremist group’ and put the threat this way: ‘Remember, more than 90 percent of American homes celebrate Christmas. But the small minority that is trying to impose its will on the majority is so vicious, so dishonest — and has to be dealt with.'”
When I read this stuff, centuries of cultural inheritance rush to my limbic brain and panic sets in: they’re coming to get us! The end of each year invites retrospection, with pundits and bloggers offering hopes and advice for the year to come. I’m dishing my advice out to myself as to others, and it can be summed up in a few words: please calm down so you can respond effectively.
Ours has been called the Age of Anxiety, but I?m tempted to call it the Age of Panic instead. My generation — the post-World War II baby-boomers — came to consciousness of the world in an era of serial panic. The Atom Bomb! The Red Scare! The Space Race! The Cuban Missile Crisis! Assassination! Watergate! Rising panic rolled across our TV screens like waves on a turbulent ocean, each bearing its flotsam of angst. The forces of virtue were in white-hot competition with countless foes, foreign and domestic.
Half a century later, our addiction to panic persists although it attaches to different objects: Drugs! Disease! Attack on family values! Attack on civil liberties! Terrorism! Perhaps we will survive these too, but like Pavlov’s dog, we bark and slaver at each new tidbit.
The culture of serial panic has shaped our fear-driven habits of mind, molding our public discourse and private moods. Our habitual state is confusion. We do not understand what is happening to us because we are swamped with feeling, incapable of considered thought. In this state, we are prey to every extravagant claim. Consequently, we have all the experts and interpreters an Age of Panic might be expected to produce. Charlatans, serene in a certainty that can never be unfeigned, hold sway.
In the grip of panic, our views of the world are almost certain to be distorted. Whether on the individual or the social level, the dynamic is the same. When fear is granted dominion in our lives, what follows is almost always one of two deformations. Either our experience is shaped by allowing ourselves to be triggered repeatedly into the same emotional reactions — to be lured into a fight each time the bully makes a threat, to buy every product that promises happiness or security, to fall again and again for the same old line, even to plummet into compulsion, addiction, fetishism as a habit becomes more deeply engrained. Or it is shaped around eluding such triggers — eschewing contact so as not to risk a fight, withholding desire to avoid disappointment, even succumbing to crippling phobias as the habit of avoidance takes hold.
The appeal of panic is deep and elemental, echoing primitive feelings of powerlessness. I recall a conversation with a client who directed a troubled organization, one that had lost its funding due to a previous director’s dereliction. Acting as volunteers, Board members were carrying out plans to raise funds and mount enough programs to keep the organization alive until it could recover. “They don’t seem to be taking this seriously,” said the client in a panicked voice, “they aren’t worried enough.” I asked what they would be doing differently if they had appeared sufficiently worried: were there greater efforts, more steps that might be taken? No, she replied; Board members were doing all they could to help. Would they be more effective at their tasks if they expressed more fear and anxiety? No, she admitted. In all likelihood, they would be distracted, tempted to engage with feelings rather than with the tasks at hand. It took a long conversation to help the client realize that the longing to see anxiety expressed stemmed from misery’s love of company, from her inchoate desire to validate her own fears by seeing them shared.
Epidemic panic is contagious; its chief symptom is vision fogged by fear. In an increasingly disconnected society, it is often what binds us — the thing that is most deeply and widely shared. In a state of panic, we are malleable, gullible, and weak: perfect prey. To loosen panic’s grip, we need only remain awake and aware. So those are my words of wisdom for the new year: let’s all resolve to calm down, so we can perceive what’s really happening and choose how to respond to the trumped-up anti-Christmas campaign, and to the many other things that will need reasoned attention in the year to come.