Being scared is nothing new. When we were preschoolers, we found the world outside our homes pretty threatening. Thundering auto traffic that might crush us, stray dogs that might bite us, crowds of people that might separate us from a parent. One way we coped was by imagining ourselves as bigger and more powerful than we really were. We told tall tales and had imaginary friends, and our parents went out of their way to help us understand the difference between reality and fantasy: “Now, did that really happen, or is this a pretend story?” Spinning fantasies of greater power is how preschoolers cope.
Later, we found ourselves taunted by our schoolmates, challenging us to do scary things. “I dare you to…(put a rock through that window, or run across the tracks just before the train gets here, or swipe a candy bar from that rack).” And woe betide the kid who declined a dare, who backed away from doing something really stupid. Such a loser was doomed to wear the damning tag of Scairdy Cat—an indelible stain that was painfully difficult to bear.
We feel some instinctive sympathy for the frightened preschooler and for the kid yearning for approval by a peer group. We have been there, done that ourselves. We have seen our children repeat these universal patterns and loved them through it. It’s all part of growing up.
These qualities are notably less lovable in adults. We look with astonishment at prominent people whose resumes are revealed to bear pretend stories about their military service or their academic degrees or other achievements they assumed would make them bigger than life. And we look with some condescension at adults who strive to dispel any Scairdy Cat questions through exaggerated macho or feminista dress and bravado. We regard these individuals as curiosities, easily dismissed.
But these qualities become not only unlovable but downright frightening when they are exhibited collectively by large groups of adults. And such groups are all too evident in the United States of America right now, bringing out and reinforcing each other’s worst instincts.
It’s one thing for a young and supremely talented boxer then-named Cassius Clay to loudly proclaim, “I am the greatest!” We smiled at his pre-fight bluster and marveled at his validating that claim in the ring. But when masses of Americans gather in stadia to declare “We are the greatest!” it triggers something else entirely. We have seen where that can lead. And we’re hearing it more and more these days.
Polls indicate that about two-thirds of Americans think that our country is in a state of decline. Many believe that this decline from the superpower dominance that we have known for half a century is now permanent, heralding a global shift that will see other nations surpass us in power and influence. They see a big world outside our home, full of unpredictable threats we can’t control. They hear punks like bin Laden and Ahmadinejad flinging dares at us designed to provoke stupid responses.
Ring a bell?
But we are not compelled to react now as we did when preschoolers or young kids. We do not absolutely have to make up stories to comfort ourselves or to take the bait when others dare us. We are not incapable of responding to the new realities as grownups.
Needing to think of ourselves as the greatest can cause a lot of trouble. It can also produce some purely ludicrous moments. Time and again during post-match interviews at the recent U.S. Open Tennis Tournament, announcers pandering to the crowd in the stadium asked the winners to agree with them that “this is the greatest tennis tournament in the world” and “these are the greatest tennis fans in the world”. The fans roared with approval of themselves. No fools, the players naturally went along with the bombastic claim despite the utter reverence they all feel instead for Wimbledon. So all sixteen winners in the quarterfinals dutifully said, yeah, sure, okay, whatever.
Paradoxically, only one of them was an American. The other fifteen quarterfinal winners badgered into hailing America’s superiority came from eight or ten other countries that many Americans couldn’t even locate on a map—countries large and small, rich and poor, powerful and not so powerful. There was a time when America and Australia used to absolutely dominate the world of tennis. That time will never come again. Never.
And that’s okay. Much of the inhumanity in the world is driven by ego, by the quest not just for satisfaction but for domination, for feeling superior. That competitive spirit works okay when confined to a field of play or within the rules of the marketplace. But there’s big trouble ahead when a whole populace yearns to believe in their relative superiority compared to the rest of humanity, to salve their fears of a scary world. Whenever a populace develops this kind of mobocratic macho psyche, becoming preschoolers writ large, they are easily manipulated by demagogic “leaders” who know just how to stir up these juvenile passions still latent within us all. We are seeing this at every turn in our very scared country right now. And there is no parent around to calm the overactive fright response by helping differentiate between real or pretend.
Enough already with the fear-driven comparatives. We do not have to be the greatest. Great would be just fine. And greater today than yesterday would be excellent.