The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

October 31, 2010

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Fear and Clothing in the 21st Century

Friday morning I emerged from the BART station to several emptied city blocks, yellow police tape marking off areas, and a bomb squad truck parked in front of the building directly across the street from my office building.  I was unnerved.  My building had not been evacuated and, although reluctant to do so, I went into my building and to work.  An email from building management was circulated explaining that police were investigating a “suspicious package” somewhere in the vicinity and recommending that “the occupants of buildings surrounding the area remain inside and stay away from the windows.”  As one of the perks of my job is having an exterior office with two windows that make up the entire outside wall, staying away from the windows was not a possibility.  Thankfully, the situation resolved without incident.  It appears to simply have been an abandoned suitcase full of clothes—as strange as that is.

I’m not especially fearful of terrorism, even though I keep up with the news and am aware of the recurring incidents in the U.S. by paranoid “patriots,” disgruntled workers, murderous “pro-lifers,” random angry people, and violent jihadists.  Twice a day every work day, I’m on the BART train, a potentially high-profile target with no discernible security, and since the initial shock of 9/11 wore off years ago, I never think about the terrorist risk.  When I fly, I worry more about windshear or equipment failure or bad weather or simple human error than bombs. 

Our contingent world is uncertain and full of risks.  Our climate is dynamic, resulting in the episodic extremes of droughts and storms.  Active geologic processes support the Earth’s surface, causing volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis.  We are potential host to various other mostly microscopic life forms that cause illness and death.  More rarely, we fall prey to other animals.  Natural and man-made toxins abound.  Our own bodily processes breakdown and fail.  We are not guaranteed but have to labor for food and shelter.  Accidents happen.  And we are subject to the malice of others.  To boot, we are more aware of our chancy circumstances than any other animal.

Our innate response to the risk of uncertainty is fear.  We don’t all fear everything the same.  For each of us, some risks are more salient than others.  Some people are scared to drive (less common, more rational); some people are scared to fly (more common, less rational); some people are especially concerned about germs (germaphobes); some people are especially affected by the foreignness of man-made toxins (environmental sensitivity); some people are scared of man’s best friend, while some can’t abide cats; and some people are terrified of heights—even despite their best efforts to overcome (including me).

Our tribal hunter-gatherer brains evolved to cope with many fewer and different risks than we face today in our industrialized, globalized world.  And our assessment of risk necessarily starts, and often ends, on the gut level.  For those of us of a more rational bent, some attempt at calculation may come into play, but no individual can have access to enough information or computing power to actually calculate out all the risks she faces every day.  And knowledge of overall probabilities does not provide very strong predictive power for the individual case anyway. 

So we all have to use heuristics, learned rules of thumb, for navigating the ubiquitous uncertainty inherent in our otherwise crazy-making world.  Often these rules of thumb are so ingrained in us, they are unconscious.  Some rules of thumb are more accurate and/or useful than others.  The least accurate ones we call “superstitions” these days.  The persistence of personal superstitions in our modernized society is a testament to the emotional power of our rules of thumb.  To do this day, I cannot bring myself to speak good fortune aloud without the fear of “jinxing” it.   Resisting this superstition is so emotionally uncomfortable that I have stopped trying.

Fear is necessary but unless controlled very limiting.  The broader and less accurate our restrictive rules of thumb are the more circumscribed and less vivid our life experience is.  When we cling to our untested prejudices, we prevent ourselves from authentically encountering the fantastic assortment of activities, places, and people that make up our world. 

The variety I get to experience from my little vantage point here on the “Left Coast” is impressive.  I live in a neighborhood of teachers, carpenters, mailmen, contractors, architects, business consultants, computer technicians, and lawyers, straight and gay, religious (there is a Samoan Mormon church at the top of my street) and not (at least me, but I am sure there are others), white, black, Asian, and Latino.  My commuter train is filled with an even greater array of people—many speaking languages I cannot identify, nevermind understand.  Any day I can choose to eat Cambodian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Korean, Mexican, Salvadoran, Brazilian, Ethiopian/Eritrean, West African, or Indian/Pakistani food.  I daily see people dressed in any manner of garb—business suits (lots of those), dastaars, taqiyahs, headscarves, batiks, tie dye, modern primitive, urban youth, the threadbare patchwork uniform of chronic homelessness. 

The other night I got to commune with an earlier time in our own history, watching Bela Lugosi as Dracula in a beautifully restored art deco theater, with an authentic news reel from that same year (1931) describing Lindbergh’s first commercial flight in an amphibious plane to South America, Babe Ruth dressing up as Santa and giving away food 2 years into the Great Depression, and Hitler’s rise to “the Mussolini of Germany.”  To do so, I had to “brave” downtown Oakland, a neighborhood many people I work with are too scared of to ever visit.

I am at most a three-hour drive from almost any conceivable activity—skiing in the Sierras, hiking in the redwoods, sailing on the Pacific, kayaking in a slough with scoops of pelicans and rafts of sea otters, white-water rafting down Class 3 rapids, viewing sandhill cranes in the Central Valley or gray whales by the Farallon Islands or elephant seals at Ano Nuevo beach.  Someday I hope to drum up the courage to cage dive with the great whites that favor our coast—a task made more difficult by my exposure to Jaws at an early age.

Variety entails uncertainty.  We are often initially ill at ease with the unfamiliar because we don’t have any rules of thumb to gauge risk by.  We latch onto whatever impressions we have—however meager their factual basis may be.  The biases we bring to bear tend to shape our perception of our experience.  If we are prone to think of young African-American males as menacing, we may tend to see the young man on the street corner at night talking loudly with his friends as a threat, and our bias confirms itself.      

The more rein we give to our unverified heuristics, the more we are like the people shackled in Plato’s mythic cave—seeing only shadows of reality and not reality itself.  My recommendation is that the next time you are on a plane, if you happen to be seated next to someone in foreign-seeming attire, consider it a privilege and say, “Hello.”  You never know what you will learn.

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson


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