By Ethan Smestad
Let’s be honest: Social media isn’t as fun of a place as it used to be.
Swipe open Facebook at any time, and these days your feed is likely filled with articles about the newest appointment to Trump’s cabinet and how that further seals the deal on the end of the world. You scroll past it because you’re trying not to dwell on it; you see a few of your friends sharing this same article; a bunch of them argue over its finer points and what it will mean for us all.
Keep scrolling, soothe yourself with some Biden/Obama friendship memes, keep scrolling and watch seemingly everyone in the world sound off on everything that’s fucked up in the world right now, from every conceivable perspective and angle.
There are the people terrified of Trump, and there are the people terrified of the people rallying against Trump — his supporters, who are only getting more galvanized. Then there are those who are constantly trying to present you with some better perspective that frames both sides correctly and conclusively. People read about how fake news on Facebook influenced the election — they read that on Facebook. Universal uncertainty prevails.
You look up from your phone out into the world, and you’re looking at a world that feels even more scared than when you first swiped Facebook open. We’ve been living this cycle for a few weeks now, but its root cause is nothing new. We’re all dealing with the most potent and invisible “enemy” mankind has ever known: fear.
After 9/11, the term “national security” became an obsession as fear spread throughout the country. In the years following the 9/11 attacks, the government increased surveillance, and eventually, Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the government’s knowledge. To me, the National Security Agency represents the adage “knowledge is power” and a thought that the more you know, the more security you have.
We all want to feel safe, and feeling like we know what’s going on goes a long way to calming these anxieties. Take a look at your Facebook feed again, and you’ll see what I mean. We’re all desperately sharing information and trying to prove we know exactly what’s going on.
But if the internet holds so much information, and humanity supposedly knows more than ever — is better educated than it ever has been — then why are we all so much more afraid? Even though the U.S. has one of the largest militaries in the world, and by all means should feel more secure than ever, why are we so afraid?
“You look up from your phone out into the world, and you’re looking at a world that feels even more scared than when you first swiped Facebook open.”
There are genuine threats for certain; many of us are reading about the carnage and bloodshed happening in the Middle East, hearing about how people who may have a different set of beliefs are flooding into Europe.
In light of shootings this year in Orlando, in San Bernardino, California, and elsewhere, the marginalized groups of this country now fear that racists, homophobes and xenophobes will be able to express their hate with impunity. There seems to be some clear sides to the conflicts brewing these days, and it doesn’t look like there’s much room for reconciliation.
We can easily point out what separates these groups — but what unites them? All sides of these conflicts share the essential drive of fear, and the desire to feel safe. Honestly, maybe we’re afraid because there’s good reason to be. We don’t know how to defend ourselves from new threats, and we’re struggling to find comfort again.
My answer to these problems is acceptance: I don’t think security is ever guaranteed, no matter how hard one tries to get it, because there is nothing secure about being alive — and this is actually good news.
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I didn’t know how good I had it growing up: I lived in a (mainly white) upper-middle-class suburb in Long Island, New York. There was virtually no crime; my parents had stable, well-paying jobs that benefitted many people in our community — looking back I realize my life until junior year of high school might as well have been a dream.
But even when you have everything you’re always told makes for a good life, none of it can stop suffering from seeping through the cracks. Our many achievements as a society, including our advancements in medicine, have done nothing to quell the fact that our bodies all have an expiration date. We can build incredible, impenetrable boxes to hide from the dangers of the world outside us, but nothing can change the fact that we’ve always been delicate and temporary creatures.
Despite everything my parents had going for them, they couldn’t stop cancer from taking them. I sometimes even think it was the very way of life they coveted that made them sick. The best medical care in the world meant nothing; even the top hospitals couldn’t stop the inevitable.
Here again surfaces the security we crave: We build giant hospitals filled with trained personnel that know the human body head to toe, and we stuff them with state-of-the-art technology, all kinds of concoctions and potions, methods for extracting tumors — a whole edifice of medical knowledge and countless reports of successfully carried out life-saving procedures. Hospitals work hard to make you feel hopeful, giving the appearance that we’ve mastered our own nature and function. But in my experience, these hospitals were mainly for the appearance of health and wellness, not the actuality of it. The same goes for the military, for government and for all structures meant to somehow control the great flux of life and death on planet Earth.
“Even when you have everything you’re always told makes for a good life, none of it can stop suffering from seeping through the cracks.”
I know these hospitals have worked for many. I’m not saying the whole thing is entirely a scam … I’m only saying that in my own experience with my parents’ sickness, the main thing I took away from it was that nothing is certain, and nothing is guaranteed.
If there's anything I learned from losing my parents, it's that you're not really living when everything is simply “alright.” We shouldn’t strive for security. When there’s nothing to question, to mourn, to fear, life just passes like a pleasant but meaningless dream.
Fear is what lets you know you’re alive. It reminds you something is at stake and that you have to take risks to fight for that small, precious scrap of an occasional incredible feeling that surges through you called “love.”
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This year has been absolutely insane — a lot of terrible things have happened. I’m writing this in the Bushwick branch of the Brooklyn Library, and as I look around at all the faces here, I feel sympathy for everyone because I know they’re all searching for something, and they’re all very scared — just like me.
People aren’t simply afraid for themselves either; they’re afraid for people they love and care for, and I can tell you losing someone you love is often far more terrifying than being physically hurt yourself or losing your own life. Many of my coworkers and friends have much more reason to be afraid than I do, and my way of coping in the aftermath of the election was to offer myself as support in any way to these friends who feel their life is under threat. Not only that, but especially for straight white people in America, it’s time to stop talking and speaking on behalf of marginalized people and shut our mouths to listen. We don’t understand what it’s like to be black, Muslim, queer or trans in America, so we need to listen to these voices, and use our privilege to help bring those voices to the frontline of the dialogue.
People are reacting differently to what’s going on — to today’s insecurity. Some people are keeping their heads down, staying quiet and waiting to see what happens; some are breaking down completely and spending days or weeks in bed; some are are holding their loved ones a little tighter; some are lashing out angrily, and pointing fingers and blame; some are fighting; some are rallying together and shouting to the heavens. The key here is that there is no right way to react to fear. There’s just honesty — acting in a way that’s true to you.
And listen: All of this is good news, I promise! It means that you’re alive, that you care, that you’re invested, and that everyone you’re angry with — everyone you hate right now — feels fearful too. The fear simmering under the surface is a symptom of that much deeper feeling that glues us all together, whether we like it or not: that feeling of love.
You and I are creatures putting one foot in front of the other, without ever having a clue when we’re going to step off the cliff. And you know what? If you disagree with that statement and think I’m wrong, that’s fine too. I won’t argue with you. I will listen. All our petty and bitter arguing and squabbling — all our fear and our love — just means that we’re here, we’re alive, we’re conscious and trying to figure it all out, like true detectives. This is what it means to be alive.
Ethan Smestad is a 24-year-old Long Island native who recently transplanted to Bushwick in Brooklyn, New York. He works for Amnesty International as a fundraiser, occasionally performs music and theater, writes freelance, and contributes to various websites.