A few weeks ago, a congregant came to me with a book. It was World War Z by Max Brooks. I’ll be honest with you: Zombies are not my thing. It’s not that I don’t like them. I just don’t care about them. My science fiction vein runs through other channels. But, since I like to read and I’m always interested in good books, I decided to give it a try. And I’m happy for that, because I found something worth reflecting about.
At some point of the novel, the main character goes to Antartica and interviews a guy named “Breck” Scott. This man is exiled from the world because, when the first Zombie outbreaks occurred, he saw the opportunity of a lifetime: He came up with a vaccine that will shield you from becoming a Zombie. The catch was, though, that this was just a placebo, a deceiving trick to make millions of dollars in times of distress. Justifying his actions, Mr. Scott said the following:
“The only rule that ever made sense to me I learned from a history, not an economics, professor at Wharton: ‘Fear,’ he used to say, ‘fear is the most valuable commodity in the universe.’ That blew me away. ‘Turn on the TV,’ he’d say. ‘What are you seeing? People selling their products? No. People selling the fear of you having to live without their products.’ […] Fear of aging, fear of loneliness, fear of poverty, fear of failure. Fear is the most basic emotion we have. Fear is primal. Fear sells. That was my mantra, ‘Fear sells.’” (p. 55)
Whether we like this or not, and trust me: I don’t like it, the paragraph rings so true… Maybe not always, maybe not with the same intensity at all times, but fear permeates our lives and is responsible for many of the decisions we make. We are very uncomfortable with those things we don’t know, and fear is our natural, biologically encoded, reaction to uncertainty. Think about Ebola. We don’t know what we are facing. We know that the rates of survival are low. And we are caught by fear, anticipating the inevitable end of the world.
The same thing happens with the fear of assimilation, the fear of immigrants taking our jobs, the fear of Islamic fundamentalists beheading every heretic in the Middle East and abroad. It’s not that those things don’t exist. They are certainly based on real events. But once we are deeply sunk in fear, we usually stop thinking. And that’s the problem.
We are afraid of Ebola, but nobody is equally afraid of the 600.000 people in the US dying from heart disease every year. We are not afraid of those dying from other illnesses and we are not afraid of a society with so many of its citizens suffering from poverty, marginalization or a complete lack of care. Ebola is new; the others are things that we have become used to. They are terrible, but we are not afraid, so they keep happening, we keep doing nothing about them and they keep hurting us as a whole.
Many are afraid of assimilation, but many of those people caught by the fear of an extinguished Judaism won’t invest in Jewish education for them and for their children. Many are afraid of the mesmerizing powers of the world, and they will lock themselves in a mental ghetto.
Many are afraid of change, but don’t realize that, if there is something constant in our life, that’s the unstoppable continuity of changes in everything that exists. We keep changing, our bodies keep changing at every single moment, the times change, and the organizations need to change in order to keep being relevant today and tomorrow. Judaism changed once and again throughout its long history, and it is thanks to our relentless resilience that we didn’t extinguish, and that we will keep flourishing.
At the other end of the spectrum, and probably as dangerous as those paralyzed by fear, we find people that are either too apathetic or too naïve to understand what is going on. At least, that is how I try to make sense of people who decide not to vaccinate their children, of people that don’t have any environmental consciousness, and of people that decide not to vote on general elections letting other people to decide on their behalf (or against their behalf!). Some people are too apathetic to really care. Others are too naïve, and aren’t able to see that certain challenges can’t be denied or ignored.
However, it is neither out of fear nor out of plain ingenuity that we need to fight for a healthier society, for a stronger Jewish identity and for a more peaceful world, but out of love, and out of kindness, and out of compassion. Those are the building blocks of an inspiring tomorrow, if we dare to make wise use of them now.
In times of turmoil and distress, we need to be careful not to be fooled by those willing to sell us fear. We will be in a much better place if we learn how to transform our primal fears into thoughtful concerns, and our thoughtful concerns into redeeming actions.