Why should I fear? Part 1: The contagion of fear

“Send this to all your friends, wives, sisters and mothers! Let them know to BE ALERT!!! Reading this could SAVE YOUR LIFE!!!!”

I get these things every couple of months: an email, forwarded by an acquaintance to her entire address book, alerting everyone of a “new” fear, illustrated by an anonymously written—and scary—anecdote.

The latest one was about kidnappers trying to lure women from chain store parking lots in broad daylight by using little old ladies as bait.


The story had all the elements: just enough details to make it seem grounded in real life, a suspicious situation, someone calling for help, a scary-looking guy in a knit cap (what, no pointy goatee?) who pops out of the car, and a police officer who “saw the whole thing” and showed up just in time to arrest the scary-looking guy…and the little old lady.

Because, obviously, the little old lady in the story was a willing accomplice and couldn’t possibly be a victim of kidnapping or abuse herself, right?

Doesn’t this sound fishy? And doesn’t it sound like something you’ve heard over and over again?

We are repeatedly told in the scriptures that in the last days there shall be wars and rumors of wars. With the growth of the Internet, it is easier to spread rumors—and fear—faster and farther than ever before. And because anything posted on the Internet never truly goes away, the rumors persist for years. (According to Snopes.com, the urgent email I received has been around at least since 2006 and is purely fictional.)

At the same time, the FBI has recently released its latest crime statistics showing that, despite the continuing recession, crime rates have fallen 6% across the board, following a trend that has been going on since the 1990s. Scholar Steven Pinker explains that rates of human violence are at historical lows—after a 5000-year downward trend—and continue to decline as people become more organized, more connected (socially and economically), more educated, and more equitable as they recognize and extend basic human rights to one another. (Our own scriptures show evidence of the civilizing and pacifying effects of good government, interconnectedness, education, social unity, and equality.)

Yet the 24-hour news cycle, entertainment, internet rumors, and thus “conventional wisdom” would have us believe that violence is on the rise, no one is safe, no one is to be trusted, predators are lurking around every corner, and all our previously normal activities (and especially those of our children) are fraught with danger and should be curbed in order to maintain absolute safety. At the same time, the things we’re told to do to be safe (isolate ourselves, distrust our fellowmen, give up our own or take away others’ rights, and avoid all possible risk) break down the very things that promote a connected, thriving, resilient, and peaceful society.

In the preface of the revelation that became Doctrine and Covenants section 45, Joseph Smith wrote, “at this age in the Church, many false reports and foolish stories were published and circulated to prevent people from investigating the work or embracing the faith.” I would argue that at this age, many false reports and foolish stories are being published to spread fear and shake faith. Is it helpful to pass such rumors along?

I understand that the person who sent me the email was afraid of the rumor and had the best of intentions in trying to make others aware of a potential (if highly unlikely) threat. And I understand that, yes, Bad Things do happen. No one goes through this life without experiencing suffering and, ultimately, death.

But we can choose not to be paralyzed by worry and not to spread the contagion of fear, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).

God gave us these gifts so we don’t have to be afraid. Let’s use them.

This series continues with a look at the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the decade of fear.

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