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Embracing Fear on Election Day

It’s inevitable — but if we confront it with courage and creativity, we’ll be stronger and better for it.

By Sandra Lee Dixon


Secret Service swarms around Donald Trump after a bottle was thrown on stage at a Campaign Rally on March 12th, 2016, in Vandailia, Ohio. (Photo: Ty Wright/Getty Images)

Tomorrow’s election presents us with an opportunity for personal and national growth. Fear has been a major theme in the news coverage over the last few months, an emotional cloud over social gatherings, and an energize-the-base strategy for both parties. Yet pretty much no one wants to make decisions driven by fear. This split between our better judgment about the drawbacks of fear and our national danse macabre with it can inspire courage and creativity.

Our cultural heritage points to courage as the better part of our self as we deal with fear. Courage harnesses reason to respond to a threatening stimulus. Consider a noise in the middle of the night. Fear in response to the noise may be unavoidable. Reasoning in response to fear is nonetheless a choice. Might we hear a burglar? Yes. But more often there’s another explanation. Act on the high probability situation, reason says, not the most frightening one. If we approach the noise with quiet caution we may find that the neighbor is knocking because he locked his keys and phone in his car or that the screen on the back window is loose. Even if a burglar is there, he might run away. Although violent confrontation is a possibility, expecting it is not the most promising guide to action. Just carry a phone ready to call 911.

Experimental psychology has long taught that high anxiety tends to restrict people’s perception of alternatives. But we need to view wider options to address the fear-inducing challenges we face as a nation and as citizens. The old solutions no longer seem to work. We need creativity, both in its aspect of inspiration and in its requirement that we build and repeatedly use skills to bring new ideas to fruition.

Creativity requires support, patience, missteps, resilience, new ideas, communication, material resources, and persistence. Those are hard to get if we hold onto gut reactions of fleeing, fighting, or freezing. Does immigration challenge the host land’s way of life? Yes. It always has. But if we can look at our anxiety and respond to it with inquiry and intelligence, we can start generating positive strategies to deal with the pressures on the world’s peoples.

A major source of fear is change. Our best plans will generate unintended effects. How can we plan when we know that we don’t know what’s coming? Often in such situations people rely on their leaders. Most often these leaders have been men. In the United States, the presidents and politicians, the military leaders, and the clergy until recently were all men, usually white men. Now, in the midst of many other changes, we have encountered the changing look of leadership. Our nation’s most prominent leaders have included women and people of color. They did not save us.

What can we expect if we continue veering off from the historical image of our leaders? We don’t know. Yet if we marshal some reason, we realize that the white men did not save us either. Did many white voters tacitly wish that acceptance of shifting demographics in our leaders was a short-term effort and that we could return to the old familiar configuration of our leadership and country? Or that change would be easy? Or that we would change the look of our leadership without undergoing an emotional reaction? No matter the color or gender of our next leaders, the fears we harbor are likely to shift shape and reappear as problems with those we elected — or with the other party’s platform, or with the demands of the rest of the world, etc.

Each of our fears, if confronted with reason, will turn out to be somewhat off the target that we thought caused it — they almost always are. Our proposed options for response will need to be critiqued. That is, we will still need to muster reason and creativity to deal with our fear.

Life, not just elections, will give us chances to confront fear and to build skills of working out new solutions. We can find eventually that this approach has developed courage in us as individuals and a nation. We can come out of the divisions of this election into creativity rather than fear — that is, into personal and national growth of courage.