UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Fear or faith?

“Fear or faith — which will be our master?”

Tom Hanks asked that question during his commencement speech at Yale University back in 2011, yet it is as timely as ever. Sharing a brief parable about three men who struggled with various fears and who sought out a wise master to help them conquer their fears, Hanks advised the soon-to-be graduates to be wary of voices that push fear, anxiety, and negativity rather than hope, faith, and optimism. “Fear will get the worst of the best of us,” he told them, “And peddlers of influence count on that.” 

often consume our attention, edging out any positivity in news programming. The selling of fear and danger overshadows the ability of many people to appreciate the relative goodness of their daily lives. Discussions of society, culture, education and government are often overwhelmed by warnings about losing out and falling behind. From school board elections to city council campaigns to congressional races, the messaging is increasingly rooted in fear rather than faith.

Our media-saturated, hyperconnected world is well constructed to foster fear even in seemingly safe, stable, and secure situations. In the field of education, for example, it’s not unusual to hear students speak of the future and their future not with excitement and aspiration but with unease and angst. Unfortunately, in contemporary American society, well-educated students who attend excellent schools and establish impressive credentials often live in fear and anxiety that they will not get into college. Or they will not get into a good college. Or it won’t be a good enough college. Or it’s not the right college. And, thus ironically, people who are actually well positioned to succeed end up consumed by fear of failure.

That the fear has led to the cottage industry of private college counselors and tutoring centers who prey on the fears of middle and upper class families. They offer extra but often unnecessary help navigating the college admissions game, often at the cost of thousands of dollars. The Varsity Blues scandal of 2019 which ensnared many wealthy families in a scheme to gain admission to college “through the side door” was one of the more extreme examples of fear overshadowing faith. While that story was the most public of these scandals, irrational fears about college admission continue to percolate. Anxiety among successful students with bright futures is a sad commentary on how fear can overwhelm reason.

A similar fear about losing out and falling behind has consumed national politics for many years. Fareed Zakaria began his 2008 book The Post-American World by explaining “This is not a book about the decline of America, but rather about the rise of everyone else.” Yet Zakaria’s research into “the rise of the rest” did nothing to ease concerns among many Americans that the country was falling behind and that the nation’s best days were behind us. A book intended to explain the benefit of an ever-expanding prosperity around the world actually exacerbated the common fear in the United States that if someone gains, someone else has to lose.

Living in fear is incredibly stressful, especially when the problems and obstacles are mostly imagined or greatly exaggerated. In the 1959 novel A Separate Peace, author John Knowles concluded the coming-of-age story with protagonist Gene’s realization that “all of them constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against an enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who had never attacked that way—if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.” Straw men and the bogeyman are easy products to sell to an unassuming customer in an increasingly anxious world. Falling prey to imagined threats is perhaps what we should worry about the most.

Every day is a new opportunity to decide how we want to view our lives, our communities, and our future. When we reflect on the state of our world, we should balance our reason and emotion. When we choose people to represent us, we must ask if we want leaders who campaign on fear, suspicion, and mistrust, or if we would be better served by those who seek to promote confidence, faith, and optimism. For, as we know but too often forget from the wisdom of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1933 Inaugural Address, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” 

Fear or faith — what’s it going to be?

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com