Scared to Death. A Lifetime of Being Frightened

Updated: Dec 2, 2020


By David Sherman


When did we become afraid? In Scorcese’s masterful documentary on Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, Dylan talks about growing up under the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Kruschev using his shoe as a hammer at the U.N., the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, taught to duck and cover at school. Air raid sirens, air raid drills. Reading, writing, ‘rithmatic and diving under your desk.

How could you not be crazy? Dylan wondered.


Did it start then? Weaned as my generation was on being turned to dust while studying algebra was probably not the best for the developing mind.

Was it Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader’s game changer about the auto industry? Cars were designed without you in mind. Steering wheels could take your head off. Cars exploded. Cars tipped. Car companies knew but profits trumped safety. Corporate America didn’t mind you dying.

Maybe the ersatz James Dean and Marlboro Man cool of smoking. Not only were cigarettes more addictive than heroin, they killed you while doctors advertised how good they were and tobacco executives testified they were perfectly safe. Even cool guys croaked of cancer.


Was it the “Seven Deadly Signs of Cancer” television beat into our heads the way they told us Frosted Flakes are Greeeaaaatttt!? The deadly signs turned out to be bullshit but it was one more thing to fear, and Frosted Flakes were great – for purveyors of insulin and diabetes drugs. Fear of salt and sugar came later.

Or was it the 1982 “Chicago Tylenol Murders?” No one was charged or convicted for adding arsenic to Tylenol capsules that killed seven but it transformed packaging and fertilized our paranoia. Unseen hands were out to poison containers of chicken stock, cartons of orange juice. So, now, everything is designed to be “tamper proof.” Nothing and nobody can be trusted. You need a gorilla to open an Advil bottle.


Then, we were told meat killed us. And cured meats would kill you twice. And then, well, maybe not. Childhood allergies to food became epidemic, thanks in large part to the company that produced epi pens and adverse reaction to bread gluten became pervasive. Can’t trust bread. Can’t trust butter, either, it turned out. Biologically, morally, food was dangerous.

Where have you gone, Julia Child? Lived 90-plus years, her only worry about dietary cholesterol and her buddy butter was having enough. Rice and white pasta, that’d do you in, too. Diabetes incubators.


We grew up during the bliss of birth control, women could enjoy themselves as had men for all of time. But then came HIV and AIDS. This STD shrugged of antibiotics. Now, sex could kill and do it in a variety of demeaning and horrific of ways. We were designed to mate. Now, bed partners have to be boiled first.


And then came 9/11 and the birth “terrorist theatre.” Anyone could be wearing a shoe bomb, especially if they spoke Farsi and were Muslim. You can never be too sure. Security, everlasting lineups, stripping at check in, air travel became worse than the subway in a Manhattan rush hour.

Curiously, no one feels you up when you climb on a train or inter-urban bus but planes and airports gave birth not only to new nightmares but a multi-billion-dollar, if not trillion-dollar security industry. Hell of a show.


Now, the chattering classes say we live in an age where everyone is afraid of the other. The left worries the right will take away fiercely fought for progress on gender equality, racial equality, abortion, health care, a social safety net – the list is long.

The right fear the loss of their religious rights, the end of families as they know it, the invasion of immigrants they worry will take their jobs, their burgers will be replaced by samosas, their grandchildren will not be their colour, abortion will lead to people having sex for enjoyment. They fear change they can’t control so look to safeguard everything they hold holy under the righteous duo of bible and flag.

The only thing the two seem to have in common is preaching love thy neighbour, though some are terrified of their neighbours.

The 1920s was the Jazz Age. The 2020s is the Fear Age.

Fear has stoked hatred and frustration, driving spikes in addiction and suicide and a declining life span.

Most of these fears were for nought. Still, we perpetually stand on guard, prepared for anything. It made some wealthy and the majority of us a little touched.


Now, the final indignity, we fear everyone. Any and all can carry Covid. Need to wear a mask, keep our distance, slowly go mad. Ironically, Covid is real and yet pitched battles are fought on the air and on the streets and in bars and restaurants over mask wearing. It’s a conspiracy by the left to …? I don’t know what.


The evidence is there. The numbers aren’t lying, the images of people tethered to machines fighting to breathe are not fake. But all around the world people don’t fear this disease. The same can be said for cataclysmic climate change. The planet is pissed.


Has it been a lifetime of being inculcated with fear that finally has done some of us in? Are they tired of being afraid? Is everyone tired of being afraid. And can you blame them?

And will fear fatigue kill us all?


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