Yes, you can be too careful. And it can be just as harmful as not being careful enough. “Be careful,” is the warning that is both a command and an excuse to say, “I told you to be careful.” Neither is specific enough to be useful, just to use as a weapon.
We love to be frightened. We love to scream at scary movies, watch movies in which the hero takes impossible risks and saves the teenager who is running through the night without a flashlight. But that’s not the kind of fear I’m talking about.
Fear-based thinking is not new. If you have watched any political campaign, you’ve seen the fear-based thinking, perhaps none so much as the most recent Presidential campaign. The fear has begun to seep into our way of thinking and planning, until fear is the touchstone for decision-making.
You can see it in the big picture: we are told that immigrants are dangerous, although there are plenty of signs (even in the conservative Wall Street Journal) that show immigrants do more good than harm to the economy. I’m sure that immigrants commit crimes, but so do economists, doctors, teacher, lawyers and people who have been in this country for six generations.
The fear I’m talking about is the fear fed by urban legends, stories we tell to feel we are “in the know,” and the stories we read or hear and want to believe because they prove we are in danger. The big danger is in becoming an adrenaline junkie by proxy. We don’t actually experience examples of what we read, but it might happen, so we take action as if it is certain to happen. Maybe we even believe a friend who swears the scary thing happened to her next door neighbor’s cousin’s ex-wife’s best friend, and that is close enough for us.
A teenager reports she found a flannel shirt wrapped around her windshield wiper and recognized it as a “kidnapping technique.” She posted it on Facebook and got 106,000 shares and 90,000 likes. The police department says they have no other report of anyone being kidnapped, mugged, or carjacked using a flannel shirt of any kind, but the story persists.
These urban legends have been around for a long time. There was the guy with the hook for a hand, the car with the flashing lights, (which was close to the killer in the backseat), and the paper on the back of the car to signal a carjacking. None of them were true, but they sounded scary and maybe they might have happened. All those likes and re-tells? They don’t make it true. But it stokes the possibility of fear in our mind.
Some people like drama, like fear. The problem is when they believe everything they read, and behave accordingly and make others around them behave as if these stories were true.
There is a difference between being careful and being fearful. Being careful includes looking both ways before you cross the street. Being careful is letting a dropped knife fall instead of trying to grab it on the way down. Fearful is believing gang members are trying to run you over as you cross the street and the knife was left out deliberately to make you use it, drop it, and cut yourself.
Being fearful is a lot like fake news. Fear-based, never happened, but pushes lizard brain into the lack-or-attack territory. Fearful means believing urban legends without at least check in with snopes.com’s fact-checking page.
It’s easy to fall for fear-based trolling. Sometimes, it’s even fun and thrilling. But normal care is plenty. No need to be hyper-vigilant. It’s exhausting and makes you more fearful, not less. If your fear is keeping you inside, holding you back from normal activities, and from seeing friends, you are being too careful. If you worry about everything from your morning yogurt to driver’s flashing lights, you are not enjoying your life enough. Take a deep breath. Not everything is perfect, but you can be too careful and miss out on fun, play, and joy.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing.