Cultivating Hope in a Fearful World

What if it really is Fear Itself we should most fear?

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Do you know what happens when we are afraid? Adrenaline and cortisol are released into the body and the amygdala (the brain’s center for emotions, memory, and survival instincts) takes over cognitive function in the brain. This is the “fight or flight” response[1]. When the amygdala is in control, the limbic system of the brain shuts down connection to the neo-cortex, the parts of the brain responsible for rational thinking.

Since the election I have been fighting consistent swellings of fear and dread. Perhaps you’ve felt something like it — images of a terrifying future that can literally take your breath (or sleep) away with their vivid intensity. I’ve been living with a sense that this rhetoric is a premonition of a society about to fall backwards into a pit of divisiveness, aggression, violence, white supremacy, and Nazis. That “those people” and their vitriol and intolerance are going to lead us into a time when everything I care about is taken away and the parts of society I most value are eroded into an unrecognizable oppressive society.

Perhaps this sounds over the top — but it doesn’t feel over the top, especially after the events in Charlottesville this weekend. And given history’s way of repeating itself, it is not actually outside the realm of possibility. We are not meaningfully different as individual humans from people living in dictatorships or oppressive regimes around the world today or in history.

What if it’s actually the fear itself we most should be cautious of embracing? (note: I am not saying there is not real danger…there is…but rather that fear may lead us toward rather than away from it).

I follow Fox News and Breitbart because they tend to represent views approximately 180 degrees from what I believe. I count on NPR, the Economist, CNN, and my friends to see news more aligned with my world perspective. The problem is, watching both, I see the ways each “side” is fear mongering:

One says, “MS-13 and the immigrants are here to kill us all…you should be afraid” the other says “Nazi white supremacists are taking over the country…you should be afraid.” One says, “OMG rightwing whites/politicians/protestors are so [insert word: hypocritical, terrible, scum]” the other says, “OMG leftwing politicians/protestors are so [hypocritical, hysterical, terrible, scum]”.

Obviously I think my own “group’s” fear is more justified — people of color in this country face real physical danger due solely to the color of their skin, or the accent in their words.

And I also know that everyone feeling fearful means we are all heading downhill fast.

When everyone is full of fear and shame, nobody wins. Emotions are contagious and fear is like the Black Plague or Ebola: it spreads rapidly and is hard to treat. When fear is primed, it narrows our perception of the world, both literally what we see visually[2], but also cognitively in terms of seeing the “big picture” of information. Fear makes us less able to empathize and see the humanity in others.

Here’s the thing. When we shame people instead of behaviors, then fear and shame only grow. Guilt is the feeling we’ve done something bad, shame is the belief we are bad. If we tell people “you’re bad”, they’re less likely to change their behavior in the future than if we say “your behavior was bad”[3]. “You’re bad” feels final and absolute and leaves little room for change…it just begets more shame.

Fear and shame are the fertile ground for division, violence, and hatred. It becomes easy to begin to justify violence (words and deed) against others when we feel our group is threatened. The White Supremacists who marched in Charlottesville hold views that are horrific to me. Hateful speech like this is not protected by our first amendment when it aims to incite violence against others (which I believe it does). These views don’t have a place in the kind of society I want to create here with my fellow citizens.

AND, it is also true that when we call people “scum”, or say they’re not worthy of empathy, or not worthy generally of being called human — then we have lost the battle already.

My feed for awhile was filled with “punching Nazi” jokes. Sometimes they made me laugh. But do you know who the majority of Nazis were? Everyday people and neighbors. People who loved their children, sang together, cried at funerals, and went to church … and who also committed and allowed atrocious behavior against other humans.

This is not because Nazis were genetically or inherently “bad” people but rather because they were people…and people are subject to very particular weaknesses and manipulation. We all like to think we’d “do the right thing” if we were in a particular situation, but 9 times out of 10 we are guided by the actions of those around us, rather than our own personal moral code. Check out Phil Zimbardo’s talk on the Psychology of Evil for a great introduction to some of these ideas.

The moment we believe we are a kind of person who is better than others, or that there are humans who are not worthy of kindness or empathy, or that there are people who should be shut out of the fold of belonging in our society, then we’ve become the kind of people we’re shunning.

The fact that the most abhorrent things can be done by everyday people is simultaneously terrifying and heartening…heartening because it means we can take action. Physicists will tell you the universe tends toward entropy, a.k.a. disorder. There are many ways to fall apart and, fortunately or unfortunately, only few ways to keep order. I’ve been trying to come up with things we can do as individuals to move us back toward positive order:

1. Recognize humanity: worth as a human is not and cannot be contingent on behavior.

This means: Stop Spreading Shame. We don’t accept these behaviors or values or perspectives, but the moment we call others scum or inhuman, we contribute to our own collective downfall. Take down the idea not the people. This means paying attention to the articles we share and the lens they have on the news. We need to know what’s happening — but anything that shames or calls names or ridicules other people is not going to lead us in the right direction. Simply from a practical point of view, we know that shaming doesn’t change behavior while guilt may.

2. Connect and love.

Yes, to people who are different than you, but also simply to those you care about. Love and positivity resonance[4] cause the release of oxytocin in the body, which counteracts the cortisol and fear hormones in a way that can promote empathy, well-being, and rational thinking.[5] We could all use a little more empathy and rational thinking in our lives. Take time every day to put down your technology and connect with real people in your life.

3. Create shared positive visions.

Rather than speaking in “I don’t want that” be able to express “I want this” or “I believe in…”. Who we want to be drives behavior nearly as much as actual feelings.

What are your core values? What is it you hope most fervently for your community and society? What do you stand for? Have you discussed these hopes, values, and dreams with others in your life? As Robin D.G. Kelley said so eloquently, “Without new visions, we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics, but a process that can and must transform us.”

If you haven’t already, participate in StoryCorps, or RE-ENVISIONED, peruse the stories on Humans of New York. Or, just interview your mom or best friend, or host a dinner party with a curated list of questions for discussion.

Create a vision of what you stand for, then speak from that place, rather than one of being against another person’s view.

4. Support the institutions and processes.

If we are to emerge from this era collectively, it will be because we decided on rules that should apply to all and found ways to keep improving our ability to actually hold all accountable. Is our current system fair? No. Has it ever been? No. There has never been a fair or just society. Does that mean we burn our current system down and try to start fresh? I don’t think so. We call it out, reaffirm our vision or create new visions, and continue the struggle.

Our institutions and rules are what protect us from chaos — if we stop believing in them, or supporting them, there isn’t anything but a collection of individual, irrational, humans tending toward entropy.

5. Cultivate hope and courage. Live kindness & love.

Once you know your values, live them. It’s certain there will continue to be a barrage of fear mongering, and there are likely to be many actual incidences that will require moral fortitude, courage in the face of physical danger, and moral leadership. We will need to use our voices, our actions, our policies, and all of our tools. Speak up. Resist. Protest. Demand fairness and justice. It will also require sustenance in terms of micro moments of love and kindness everyday that strengthen and give hope. Do both.

In 50 years I hope this is a footnote in a history book instead of the end of the American democratic experiment. That is more likely to be true if we find ways to decrease chronic fear, stop shaming one another, and foster connection and shared vision. I truly believe the majority of Americans want similar things. In fact, I believe most humans want similar things — if we allow the extremists to make us lose sight of this and give in to fear and othering, if we attack people rather than discuss ideas, then our democracy withers and no one flourishes. The only antidotes to fear and shame are connection, belonging, love, and hope. The arc of history may bend toward justice, but only when we hold ourselves and our leaders accountable to acting in accordance with our vision of a more just future.


[1] More recently expanded to include freeze and fright, e.g. Bracha, Ralston, Matsukawa, Williams, & Bracha, 2004

[2] E.g. Gorst & Kosslyn 2010

[3] Guilt vs. shame from Brene Brown.

[4] Barbara Fredrickson defines positivity resonance as when a trio of tightly interwoven events between people: 1) a sharing of positive emotions between two or more people; 2) synchrony in biochemistry and behaviors that happens when people truly “see” one another and mirror their internal state; and, 3) an intention and reflected motive for mutual care and investment in each other’s well-being (Fredrickson, 2013, p. 17).

[5] Oxytocin has been found to modulate aggression, anxiety, and improve social behavior, and to improve people’s ability to read other’s emotions (Adolphs, 2008; Phelps & LeDoux, 2005). Furthermore, oxytocin is a primary defense against stress and fear reactions. Recent research has found it plays a key facilitative role in allowing our body to recover from moments of fear or stress (Acheson & Risbrough, 2015; Eckstein et al., 2015).

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Solving systemic problems to create a more just, loving world. Transforming education for human flourishing and thriving democracy. Co-Founder @ REENVISIONED.

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