Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

By Paul Houston | Categories: Uncategorized

This summer I was able to visit Sweden with my significant other Sandra. Her father had emigrated from there as a young man and she had many relatives still living in the area where he grew up. It gave her a chance to retrace her father’s journey and it gave me a chance to see the “feared” Swedish socialism close up. I use the term “feared” because like a lot of the other things we are hearing in the current political discussions there is great fear without facts. The implication is that we might become “socialist” too and that would be a bad thing. What is interesting about this is that most people who fear it have never seen it close up and in fact really don’t know what it entails. Well, I can tell you that “democratic socialist” Sweden looks pretty good close up. While taxes are high, there is no “tea party” rebellion because they feel they get a lot for their money. They have no sense that they aren’t free or lack liberty. Education is free through graduate school, healthcare costs are minimal, older people have good retirements and nice facilities available in their declining years, and the infrastructure is excellent. And my favorite is they have mandated five weeks of vacation a year so people seem less stressed. So, before we fear something, we should learn more about it.

And that is really what I wanted to talk about. The day before we arrived in the lovely little village where Sandra’s family lived they had a visit from a not so friendly wolf. In fact it had been years since a wolf had been spotted in those parts and the fact it had killed several sheep had caused quite a stir. It was the major topic of conversation and there was a good deal of fear expressed by the locals.

When we were discussing this with the lady where we were staying, she just laughed. She said that Swedes were deathly afraid of wolves. But in all the years she could remember there had never been a report of anyone being injured or killed by a wolf. And yet Swedes had no real fear of bears but each year people are mauled and killed by bears. She said that she thought it was because people thought of bears as cuddly-they had Teddy bear images. But wolves were always the killers in our fairy tales. After all, Goldilocks got to sleep in all three bear beds and eat their porridge without serious consequence, but Little Red Riding Hood lost her grandmother to a wolf. And we know wolves can be tricky-sometimes they dress up in grandmother’s clothes to lure you close and sometimes they dress in “sheep’s clothing” to lull us into a false sense of security. You just can’t trust a wolf.

As we talked about this I realized that we become the stories we tell ourselves. We fear the things we think we should fear and ignore the things that we tell ourselves that aren’t dangerous. This is really the only way to explain so much of how all of us live our lives. We hear discussions for days about the mother who drove her three children into a lake and killed them but ignore the thousands of children who die each year because of abuse or neglect. I think it was Stalin who famously said that one death is a tragedy but a million is a statistic. And he was a man who understood millions of deaths. How else can we witness the gunning down of a couple dozen children in Connecticut, ignore the thousands killed each year by handguns and still do nothing. We fear what might happen to us but ignore what happens to others.

As I thought of fear, I thought of Sandra’s father who left Sweden when he was seventeen to come to America and build a new life. He didn’t know anyone; he left all his friends and family and with virtually nothing in his pocket but with hope in his heart he came here to create a life for himself. His story is remarkable not because it is different but because it is so common. America became the home of the brave because of those who were brave enough to come here to make a home and to create a new life and a new world for themselves and their children.

Yet, now we see fear of those who want to come today and create a new life for themselves. We are told we need to build higher walls and have more “boots on the ground” to keep them out. We are afraid of those who are darker and different. And we concoct elaborate and expensive schemes to keep them away. We, as a nation, need to stop telling ourselves that the big bad wolf is coming to get us and start understanding the stories we are telling ourselves. We should not delude ourselves by ignoring the humanity in the statistics concerning our fellow man.

And we need to stop be fixated on televised reality television. The whole country was fixated on the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case. Pundits told us it was about racism, or the right to stand your ground. What it really was involved a sad story of fear. Racism is really just fear dressed up in wolf’f clothing, and the need to stand your ground is just a reaction to that fear. Zimmerman feared thieves in the neighborhood enough he felt he needed to carry a gun. Martin feared the “weird dude” who was following him. Zimmerman was afraid Martin was going to kill him, so he killed him first. We are all afraid of each other. We have become a nation trying to stand our ground against each other.

I have come to believe that all of life can be reduced to the scales of fear and trust. The more fear we have, the less trust we feel. The more we trust, the less we fear. We trust those who are inside our circle and fear those who are outside. The simple solution is that we must all work to expand our circle of trust to include a wider world. We need to find ways to help our children broaden their circles and learn to trust. And we need to help them discern between the real threats to them and the stories they are telling themselves. I titled my most recent book, “Giving Wings to Children’s Dreams” because I believe that is the basis of education. And children cannot soar if they are weighted down with a false fear of the world. Yes, they need to be respectful of the real dangers that exist, but not everything and everyone who is not like them is a danger. They need to be taught to sort out the bears from the wolves and that what is outside their circle is not something to fear, but might be something to learn about and to embrace.

Watch Paul Houston talk about the Common Core in Common Core Conversation with Paul Houston.