The 2011 disasters in Japan triggered much anxiety among some people in America. This is curious considering how far removed we are from that experience. Thinking easily exaggerates (or minimizes) reality and makes matters feel even worse than they actually are, or vice versa. Media only adds to this by feeding our fears and needs. The mind’s ability to skew our perception of reality definitely sets us apart from other animals.
Worry makes it worse
Of course, it’s different for people actually experiencing disaster. Theirs is a visceral sense: feeling of shock, loss, discomfort, and fear directly resulting from a physical experience. Any animal, including us, would feel this way faced with similar circumstances. Where we part company with the animals is in imagined fear of loss and discomfort, which causes worry and stress.
I was surprised to hear about a friend, arriving from Japan, who had her sandwich confiscated by US customs due to radiation fears. Such irrational, not scientifically supportable fear of radiation also resulted in panic purchasing of potassium iodide by some Californians. Once I would have just thought, “Those idiots”. Now I recognize it is all of us… “We idiots”, which is humbling. Our self-image is very much out-of-sync with the animal we truly are.
Curiously, whenever we feel doubt, the mind invariably imagines the worst case to be the probable one. This must be an innate failsafe—“Better safe than sorry” — emotional bias. Naturally, the worst case is usually not the case! My mother’s state of mind whenever her cat failed to return home at night exemplifies this. She would fret and worry that he’d been run over or what not. Every time he’d return home the next morning. Yet, every next time he’d stay out, she would always imagine the worst. I’d remind her of how he’d always return, and how he was undoubtedly “out on the town”. Nevertheless, evidence and reason were impotent; emotion rules the day.
Don’t worry, plan wisely
On the other hand, it is equally striking how consistently we ignore real worst-case probabilities that lie just beyond the horizon. An obvious example is the overly optimistic way we approach life. Our decrepit years lie ahead, yet many fail to take heed and prepare body and soul. The same lack of preparation occurs in countless other matters when there are no stimuli stirring us to act. Climate change and the national debt are two clear examples. We need a shocking event to trigger genuine concern, and when it happens, we invariably panic and overreact. Ironically, we believe humans are exceptionally rational. Certainly, we think and talk as if we were, yet we behave very irrationally, just as all animals do. Clearly then, belief is what we wish to be; behavior is what we are.
Fear is the master puppeteer
I’ve long underestimated the deep impact that emotions, especially fear, have upon our lives. Not anymore! Fear is the master puppeteer. The Bhagavad Gita has words on fear that once inspired me greatly. For example:
2:38 Prepare for war with peace in thy soul. Be in peace in pleasure and pain, in gain and in loss, in victory or in the loss of a battle. In this peace there is no sin.
2:39 This is the wisdom of Sankhya ‑ the vision of the Eternal. Hear now the wisdom of Yoga, path of the Eternal and freedom from bondage.
2:40 No step is lost on this path, and no dangers are found. And even a little progress is freedom from fear.
I realize now that “freedom from fear” would be going against nature. Fear is the energy source for life itself, and so these three verses represent an example of chapter 64’s, Of old those who excelled in the pursuit of the way did not use it to enlighten the people but to hoodwink them. Thus, I find that true “progress” would be simply realizing that fear propels the thinking, which can easily creates needless worry and stress.