Why Are Americans So Afraid?

When we look around at the news these days, it seems that a single emotion is driving a great deal of American life. That emotion is fear. Donald Trump and his followers seem terrified of all Muslims. Liberals are afraid of the far right wing; and the far right wing is afraid of liberals. Many are afraid of those with a different sexual orientation, a different skin color, or women wearing a hijab. The silly issue of the war on Christmas is also about fear. Those who believe there is a war on Christmas are terrified of those who have religious beliefs different from their own or who lack religious beliefs completely.

The widespread presence of fear in our society seems obvious, but the cause of that fear is less easy to identify. An insight from Buddhism may be helpful. One of the core ideas of Buddhism is that the source of our suffering, and our fear, is an inability to accept the fact that the world--the things we love, the things we hate, and our very being--is impermanent. Nothing lasts forever and the only real constant in our world is change. Suffering and fear, from the Buddhist perspective, come from clinging to the idea that our lives, our possessions, and ourselves will somehow remain forever.

In a society like the U.S., so shaped by values of materialism, acquisition, and greed, the illusion of permanence is profound. Americans are terrified to lose what they "have" because they have come to believe that having things is the way to hold on to a secure and happy life. They are afraid of losing their safety, their possessions, and their way of life. But the idea that these things are somehow permanent is an illusion--the American way of life today is very different from what it was 50 or 100 years ago, and it will be different 100 years into the future. The house you think you own today will not be yours in the future, when you are dead. Everything is always changing and nothing we "have" is permanent.

Indeed, in reality, we have nothing, because in the end we will all die and all that we "had" will be gone. Ideas like Heaven and Hell are a way to try to extend the illusion of permanence into the afterlife; but we have no evidence that either place exists. What we know is what we experience in the here and now. The future is a mystery, as is anything that might come after we die. But there does seem to be truth in the old adage that you can't take it with you. You probably won't be driving an Audi if there is an afterlife.

Buddhist philosophy notes it is a sad and unpleasant existent to spend life so afraid of losing things that we never really own in the first place. Buddhism is one among many paths that can liberate people from this fear by opening our eyes to the simple fact of impermanence. There is really little point to clinging to your material and ideological possessions, because you won't be able to keep them in the long run and everything around you is constantly changing anyway. The one thing that such clinging generates is fear of an imagined future that you can control--and fear is the primary source of unhappiness and, ultimately, hatred. As philosopher Alan Watts put it, "[n]o work or love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart, just as no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now."

Buddhism is very helpful in thinking about these problems, but we can find similar sentiments from our own history. In his 1933 inaugural address at the height of the Depression, FDR said it well when he noted that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. And a couple of centuries earlier Ben Franklin said this, "[t]hose who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." The desire to put safety above freedom comes from clinging to things--to money, cars, houses, jobs, and "our way of life." But the idea that those things are permanent is an illusion.

True freedom only can come when one lets go of desire and, through that, the endless torment and fear that one may not get or be able to keep those things so desperately wanted. America will not be able to conquer its problems until Americans manage to conquer their fears. And those fears are a product of a society built on values that promote consumption and material gain as the source of security and happiness when, in fact, they are the cause of insecurity and fear.