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The Absence of Danger Makes Us Crazy

We live in a time of unparalleled safety and comfort, yet behave otherwise. Why? Because we cannot help it, which is actually making things worse.

Our eighteen-year-old son bought a scooter to get to and from college and work and home. I fret over this. Even now, writing these fears down, a superstitious dread overcomes me, a sense that writing about it might make an accident happen.

We live on a tourist island; there must be forty scooter rental places here, and twice that number for bicycles. The word ‘ubiquitous’ was invented to describe the wheeled vehicles on this island. It’s Florida, so there are no helmet laws. Nobody wears one. Except our son, because we make him.

I borrowed his scooter the other day, and in order not to appear hypocritical I wore his helmet, It was hot, bulky, and felt entirely unnecessary. But I kept it on, because my anxiety that something might happen to my son without it is overwhelming.

None of this is necessarily out of the ordinary, of course. We all spend a great deal of time doing all manner of things intended to make us safer or to avoid some potential future catastrophe. From our diets to strapping across the seatbelt, we regularly act on fear. But it’s also a little bit nutty, this anxiety, because it doesn’t go away. We live comfortable lives, as safe as any in human history, with a strong roof, clean water, medical care, food, and abundant energy. If there are things out there to fear, they are almost all of them things I can do nothing about — the random unexpected inevitabilities of the world. And yet I also live with a simmering, never-ending anxiety. That my health insurance will vanish. That a hurricane will come. That my sore back is some kind of cancer. That my kids will starve. The car will break, the dog die, my career falter, the economy collapse. Some of these things, like the kid, I act on, but for most it’s just a quiet, insistent voice always in the background, like the worst song you can’t get out of your head.

Mohamed Nohassi — Unsplash

The thing is, I also know true danger. A number of years ago, my wife and I decided to leave our comfortable middle-class lives as American school teachers (2 salaries is enough, not one, for that) and move overseas with our 2 young kids. Our first job was in Lahore, Pakistan, which was ‘relatively’ safe when we signed our contracts but totally (and in some cases literally) blew up soon after. The Taliban, always active in the Provinces, stepped up attacks in the cities. By the time we arrived in August, there were weekly bombings around the country, and no less than 5 major attacks while we were there, including a coordinated assault on a visiting cricket team a few miles from our school whose grenades and gunfire we could hear, and a police station bombing even closer whose boom rattled the windows and shook the ceiling tiles. Oh, and I was in the middle of a Macbeth unit with my high school juniors when a student announced that Osama Bin Laden had just been killed in a town about 80 miles from us.

Yet in a strange way, we also felt safe, because the danger was so real and there were so many things we could do about it. I kept a ‘go’ bag in the car with extra clothes, carried extra money. I drove cautiously, vigilant to the road, and varied my standard routes. We surrounded ourselves with friends and traveled in larger groups to places that had been vetted. There were bars on all the windows and guards outside all the houses.

And not just me, the whole country took steps. There were guards and police everywhere. Friends and relatives back home would ask if we felt safe at the American school we taught, and I’d reply cheerfully, ‘Of course! We have machine guns on the roof!’

One thing you learn in a dangerous country is that almost everyone else is just like you, even if you are nothing at all like them. The Pakistani people were astonishing warm and welcoming, and crime — at least in Lahore — almost non-existent beyond petty theft.

My wife has suffered a kind of low-level chronic anxiety her entire life, and says Pakistan was the first place she ever lived where she felt, in some strange way, safe, because for once her anxiety was REAL.

I suspect I’m stepping onto quite a vast landscape of dangerous territory here, for there’s a policy-driving political undercurrent to many of these anecdotal observations. If safety makes us crazy, then it might follow that it is the sanity-inducing effects of insecurity which we should embrace. The ‘toughen you up’ school of thought. There’s a strangely uncomfortable truth to this, though it’s also paradoxical and not exactly a gratifying trade.

Poverty and insecurity DO create violence. It’s just not the ‘crazy’ kind, in the sense that it’s senseless. The underlying ‘excuses’ for violence in insecure, poor, suffering nations have discernable causes and logic, a structure that can be understood. People steal from each other because they are poor. They abuse each other because the trauma of poverty has effects and a cycle. It’s not a great logic for the one doing it, but there’s a foundation, a root, a history. Even the wide-scale stuff has logic. The misogyny of much religious extremism can be traced to clear frustrations and causes, to an historical ideology bubbling up through centuries of power and action. It’s not effective, to be sure. It’s profoundly harmful, self-reinforcing, and inadequate as a response to terrible conditions. But there’s an internal sense, a set of principles and a logic that is internally consistent to the people doing it. There’s an enemy, whether it’s a religious threat of another deity, an economic threat, a cultural foe. Or economic threat in the form of contrasting or contradicting interest groups, of tribal conflict over limited resources, historical conflict calcified along biological differences. The reasons are endless, but they are at least REASONS.

In all these cases the enemy is defined, labeled, identified, categorized. It’s not a true or just conflict, but there is a ‘logical’ cause, a root set of principles, an ideology.

This violence we have in America, though, lacks such consistency. It is, truly, ‘insane’ — if we allow that insanity, true insanity, is precisely insane because there is no sensible, internally consistent driving principle or cause.

America’s violence is insane. There’s no way around this truth. There’s little sense to it. AT ALL. There’s no ideology, no cause, no source.

The most powerful proof of this thesis is the young American white male.

It would be comforting to know that the threat to our security is outside our borders, outside America, or simply outside us, but the evidence proves otherwise. The majority of our nation’s mass shootings come from the ‘safest’ among us — white males who aren’t poor or desperate.

There’s lots of things to blame it on. Male toxicity, a vanishing demographic, sexism, masculinity, absence of mates, poor wages and diminished opportunity, availability of firearms, violent video games. But taken as a whole, American mass shootings (and their less common but no less horrific European and Canadian brethren) share the strangest of characteristics: namely, the safest, most powerful, most self-assured demographic on the planet, the young white male. In the safest country on the planet, with the most wealth and most security, with an army larger than the most other nations combined, an economic engine that is still strong, unequalled opportunity if one is willing to work and study, and on and on and on, the American male STILL frequently decides to grab a gun and go murder a bunch of innocent people, often children.

The profound, horrible irony is that our safety and security makes us crazier, more dangerous.

We are not designed for safety, of course. At least half of our primal, biological and psychological programming is specifically intended for the opposite. Fight or Flight. The immune system. Allergic reactions. The internal biome, hair follicles, fever, the gag reflex, the histamine system, tribalism, suspicion of the dark, response to stimuli, surprise, fear, hate. For a million years our bodies and minds simmered continually with fear and tension, because it was necessary to do so to survive. This is true of any animal or insect still among us, too. Just watch them. No animal alive to adulthood walks blithely through the world, except maybe our dogs, and they are all crazy.

Safety makes us crazy.

Even our politics is insane. We act as if the opposing party’s ideology is an existential threat to our very being, and then make that feeling true by doing the kinds of things one is only supposed to do when the threat is real. We make the threat real in our own insanity, and then feed off of it like ravenous animals.

It’s worth noting too that this is all actually relatively new. So much of our behavior — especially our play — once embraced the danger and conflict that drives fear. There was a time when most Americans hunted, with weapons, channeling the inner predator and mimicking the inner prey. There was a time before airbags when putting on your seatbelt really was an act of self-preservation. It’s kind of strange to think of old acts of safety — keeping your blow dryer away from the shower, checking the tires on the car, cautiously sniffing that can of tomatoes after you opened it — as being quietly good for you precisely because of the very real danger they held, but there’s a truth there. The dangers we acted to prevent were real. They happened.

Over the last few decades, we’ve increasingly eliminated such activity and tension. Playgrounds no longer promise the titillating possibility of falling onto something hard and painful. Tension between children is soothed and ameliorated immediately. Sports emphasize fun rather than conflict. We no longer let children alone, and in fact increasingly monitor them with an anxiety that just keeps building no matter how much possible danger we eliminate. We are safer now than we ever been in the history of the planet. The threats — disease, drowning, weather, accidents, sharp objects — no longer genuinely affect us. When was the last time you saw someone with a missing finger? It used to be that half the male population had significant scar. Hard to imagine that chopped off digits is a good thing, but maybe there it is.

The paradox of our eternal quest for safety and security and comfort is that we succeed.

We have to recognize, on a society-wide level, that our primal instincts of suspicion and fear cannot (or is there a pill?) be overcome by eliminating the external causes. This may be an intractable problem, though, for how can we reintroduce the threats we are unavoidably primed to respond to and still stay safe? How can we allow the kinds of uncertainty and danger and suffering that those systems are legitimately designed to counter?

I don’t have the answers, because right now my son is going to work and I need to go shout at him to put his helmet on.