After the Lusitania, the Battle of the Somme, the first Wall Street crash and rampant unemployment, during vitriolic politics and national division, we had a New Deal. Our leaders told us to have no fear.
Even after Hitler’s rise and after the Holocaust, all of which preceded Stalin’s rise and the crisis in Cuba; after Watergate, after the malaise and the economic turmoil that followed, after the Berlin Wall fell, we returned to having no fear.
But now, after the Twin Towers fell, after body bags were shipped home from countries whose names we didn’t recognize, after Katrina sunk New Orleans and after the second Wall Street crash, things are different. Despite bin Laden’s demise, despite withdrawal from Iraq and despite successive government bailouts, fear remains. This time, fear may be here to stay.
The first decade of the 21st century inspired tangible new fears — terrorism, cyber warfare and diabolical greed. But it has also inspired an unconscious form of fear. For those of us whose political and economic consciousness were formed during this century, fear has intractably shaped those formations. Now, instead of striving against fear and toward greatness, we succeed by embracing our fear of failure. More importantly, we sidestep the real issue — fear itself.
The internalization of fear is especially true for us high-achieving college students. We thrive not because we can escape fear, but because we integrate it into our actions in order to hedge against it. In high school we played three sports, too scared to commit ourselves to excellence in one. We also chaired three clubs, too afraid one was not enough to get into Georgetown. We brought this mentality with us to college, too, and it affects our social lives. We drink when we seek intimacy because we’re afraid we can’t handle the real kind. We take mid-level, Wall Street or Capitol Hill jobs because we are too afraid to define our passions and live them out fully.
With the passive integration of fear into our psyches comes a diminished risk tolerance. We take few risks because we are afraid they might lead to failure. For example, we do not take hard electives because it could damage our GPAs. We don’t form real relationships because we are afraid of getting hurt. As a generality, we don’t challenge the status quo because we have learned the comfortable complacency of conforming to it.
Some might say that living cautiously and minimizing failure is a good thing in itself. But then there’s a paradox: There’s no growth in a comfort zone and no comfort in a growth zone. If we don’t take risks, how can we possibly grow? How can we learn from our shortcomings and improve ourselves? Most importantly, how can we confront fear itself?
The ongoing failure to overcome social challenges and psychological fears calls into question the prospects for our nation as a whole. Broadly, it’s a cultural problem — one that stems from the fear of confronting our shortcomings. In the words of The New York Times columnist David Brooks, “There’s abundant evidence to suggest that we have shifted a bit from a culture that emphasized self-effacement — I’m no better than anybody else, but nobody is better than me — to a culture that emphasizes self-expansion.” Instead of working together to counter fear, we muddle it with our own internal interests and self-consciousnesses.
Central to a countries’ strength — or, at least, America’s strength — is the collective will of its people to be a nation. Our cult of individual self-expansionism, compounded and perpetuated by our acquiescence of fear, paints a grim picture. Despite all existing inclinations, society must stop accepting fear. Instead, we should confront it, challenge it and conquer it.
For this to happen, we need to invoke an earlier time in American history when we came together, when we were not stilted by fear, and worked cohesively to claim America’s greatness. We need a moment inspiring national resilience. We must return to a society that realizes that there is far more that unites us than there is that divides us. America’s history — our history — is chock full of examples, reaching from the first western pioneers and up to the first astronauts.
The challenge rings out, and the next generation of American leaders must respond. That’s us — the same high-achieving college students. If we’re to embrace one thing during our college years, it’s this: There is no fear worse, no more debilitating, than fear itself.
Michael Meaney is a senior in the School of Foreign Service and Matthew Hoyt is a senior in the College. They are the president and director of communications of the Georgetown University Student Association, respectively. THE STATE OF NATURE appears every other Tuesday.