FDR famously said that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I say, where is Franklin when we really need him? America today is awash in fear. We worry about ISIS, Ebola, and children crossing our border. It seems America has become a nation of worrywarts.
It is hard to know exactly when we lost our notion of being the “land of the brave,” but to any casual observer it seems that, rather than bravery, we are a sisterhood of the traveling scaredy pants. Further, we have lost all perspective. We fail to act on corralling our runaway gun culture when, every year, thousands die of gunshot wounds. Meanwhile, we worry about a crazy group of radicals half a world away who have killed exactly the same number of Americans that O. J. Simpson allegedly killed. As someone else pointed out, one person has died of Ebola in the U.S., which is less than the number of marriages that Kim Kardashian has had. We need to get a grip.
It doesn’t help that 24-hour cable news voraciously reports on any issue for hours on end so that Americans are inundated with bad news ad nauseum. It also doesn’t help that we have an election coming up and, as been demonstrated in past elections, fear sells. The major position of one of our major parties seems to be “be afraid, be very afraid.” And it works. We are.
It is hard to imagine or remember a country that “paid any price [and] bore any burden” to make the world a safer place. And the reality is, the world is a safer place. While we worry about an armed nut entering one of our elementary schools, those of us of a certain age vividly remember the nuclear drills where we had to hide under our wooden desks and kiss our fannies goodbye in case of a nuclear attack. But because of political manipulations and the never-ending search for profit from our media outlets, we have become a nation afraid of our own shadow.
But there is more at work here than what I have said so far. First, if you think about it, most of the fears we have now are aimed at those who are different from us-tan Middle Easterners with a different religion, blacks from Africa who might be carrying some deadly disease, and little brown children from Central America who are coming to overthrow our way of life. So at the macro level, we as educators must redouble our efforts at helping our children see past the superficial differences of “others” to understand their commonalities to them. Sadly, race and social class still reign as the DNA of our country.
Towards the end of the Cold War, the musician Sting wrote a song with the line, “I hope the Russians love their children too.” As it turns out, they did, and the insanity of a nuclear holocaust receded. Well, those who are different from us have many of the same values and hopes for the future that we share. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t crazy people out there who do not value life or that there aren’t diseases or even social conditions that might consume us, but we were all created in the same image and are hardwired to want many of the same things. That is the core truth of the human family.
But at a much deeper level, we as humans must come to understand our deepest connections to each other. I was told once that I needed to consider that if the Pacific Ocean were drained, I would find that all the islands are connected. What this means is that if we go deep enough, we are all connected in a deep and profound way. Our own egos and selfishness just get in our way. We have seen in the last few years what greed can bring to the economy and it wasn’t pretty. We know what wars do to the lives affected by them. Greed and selfishness should not be a part of who we are. We are capable of better.
How do we create learning for our children that allows them to see past their own selves, to the connection to others and to the power that connection can create in their lives? I believe that is what social and emotional learning can do. Perhaps if we work hard enough at it, we can once again be the home of the brave-with a bravery that comes not from our military power, but from our personal power to live a life of compassion and caring. With apologies to FDR, I would say that the only thing we have to fear is ourselves and our own worst instincts, and thankfully, we have the power to overcome our own weaknesses to make the world a better place.