Commentary: The right amount of fear | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Commentary: The right amount of fear


The most important thing for us is to have the right amount of fear.

Some of you may know that those words are a variation of the end of a quote attributed to the legendary Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Here is one common translation:

“The world is a narrow bridge and the important thing is to not be afraid.”

Dr. H. Steven Moffic

I wonder if the recent events in the United States, coupled with psychological research on fear and anti-Semitism, calls for an amendment of the end of the quote to: the important thing is to have the right amount of fear. Finding that right amount for any given situation is one of life’s important challenges, whether for an individual, community or country. Perhaps this can be a (secular) New Year’s resolution.

For good evolutionary reasons, fear is a primal, hard-wired response to danger, real or perceived. Scaring people, say in an election, tends to make many more conservative. In the 2016 election, analytics firms used “psychographic targeting” to target ads to the fearful. Right before that election, a Pew poll found that over half of each party feared the other half.

However, our cognitive abilities can override this instinctual response and we can actually end up with too little fear, too much fear, or just enough fear. Historically, for instance, so many seemed to not have enough initial fear of Nazi Germany and Hitler.

Another spike in anti-Semitism tarnishes what has otherwise been a Golden Age for Jews, with a unique combination of a strong Diaspora and Israel. But one way to reduce fear is to find a scapegoat. So-called white nationalists chanted “the Jews shall not replace us” last year, followed by the recent gunning down of congregants with blaming of Jews for the “caravan.” Such deaths can trigger our own fear of dying and our collective history of trauma.

So, how fearful should we be and what should be done with our own fear after the heartwarming vigils and mourning period, so that we don’t slide back too comfortably into life as usual? I’m sure we’d like to completely forget about it, but we shouldn’t. A psychiatrist colleague in North Dakota shared this acronym, FACTS, a roadmap to reduce fears and increase community resilience developed after the 1997 destructive flooding of the Red River.

Foster hope

Act with purpose

Connect with others

Take care of yourself

Search for meaning

Now we add the midterm election results where both parties, and clearly we do have Jewish supporters on both sides, seem to be claiming partial victories. If scare tactics and scapegoating were viewed as helpful, they actually could escalate for a time. There is significant change, and change itself can evoke fear until it is clear what it means.

So, there may be times to not be afraid, but it is not now. We will have the right amount of fear when it moves us, with courage, toward solving real problems. For that, we need public discussion and debate. That could include watching the re-release of the movie Schindler’s List.

May we also have allies in the unprecedented elected wave of women, including other minorities such as Native and Muslim American women, help us fulfill this saying from our tradition that my wife Rusti often quotes in times of trouble:

“Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.”