Business Insider

Scaring ourselves silly is no laughing matter

Where is Red Skelton when we need him?

For 50 years on radio and television, Skelton created a funhouse of zany characters — freeloaders, hayseeds, clowns and one memorable little guy he called the “Mean Widdle Kid.” That kid had a vivid imagination. He could convince himself there were bears under his bed and backyard lions which he would quickly subdue. But then he would run terrified to his mom screaming, “I scared myself, I scared myself!”

Today, like the kid, many of us too often scare ourselves silly for little good reason, choosing fear over reality, fiction over facts.

Take terrorism and the fear of refugees, for example. Terrorism is serious and indeed scary. So many killed so suddenly. Fear says, “I could be next!”

However the number of deaths from terrorism in the U.S. in last 10 years is less than 100, including Boston, Fort Hood and San Bernardino. By comparison, in that time more than 350,000 died from automobiles and 280,000 from firearms. Vastly more died falling off stepladders.

There’s a lot of research in this area. We fear driving less than flying, although driving is vastly more dangerous, because we are “in control.” Fear rises when a lot of people die. It’s harder to die slowly but scarier to imagine dying quickly in a dreadful manner.

Research says we fear most people unlike us in appearance, culture and history. Refugees are typically shy, desperate to fit in and statistically likely to commit fewer crimes than the rest of us. Yet because we don’t know them, we tell ourselves scary stories about the inevitable exceptions.

Research says the more positive our outlook on life, the less fearful we are. Fear is self-crippling, among our own worst enemies. A woman widowed in the Paris attack responded to future terrorists with the words, “I will insult you with my happiness.”

Red Skelton was a big success in the good old days many voters long for; however his innocent comedy would never cut it today. These days, as the columnist David Brooks has written, “we wallow in the parts of America that are fading” rather than celebrate what’s working well.

Pessimism beats good news. Yet Red’s old-fashioned advice still holds: Stop scaring ourselves silly.

Jerry Brady is a member of Compassionate Boise, a new organization encouraging compassion in all aspects of life. This column appears in the June 15-July 19, 2016 edition of the Statesman’s Business Insider magazine. Click here for the e-edition (subscription required).