Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Panic Responsibly

It has been a heck of a year. Lots of bad stuff has happened with the typical forecasts of more to come. Some people are able to handle the bad stuff with a clearness of head and a calmness of demeanor and a reliance on accurate information and critical thinking skills. Others go into widespread panic mode, freaking themselves out and spreading their existential angst over everybody near them, like a cold, wet blanket of doom.

One of the first things I remember learning about emergencies is that you are supposed to stay calm. I now see why. Panic does you no good. Think about all the collateral damage done by panic. Wikipedia has an entire entry, and a quite long one at that, for human stampedes. Take a spin through these disasters and you'll see that, even when there is a tragic event, a fire or shooting or collapse of a stage, that triggers the stampede, it is the stampede that does by far the most damage. In fact, there have been situations such as in 1913 when in the Italian Hall in Calumet, MI, somebody yelled "fire" and 73 people, including 59 children, were trampled to death in the panic to exit the building. This situation is particularly horrifying because there was, in fact, no fire.

Perhaps because I am genetically wired to anxiety, I pick up on each message of coming oppression or inevitable disaster. The nice thing about having been on the planet over 5 decades is that I have seen these prognostications come and go with almost ludicrous frequency.

I remember hearing in 1976 that Jimmy Carter, our newly elected president, was the antichrist because his name, James Carter, started with J.C. like Jesus Christ and that James and Carter had the same number of letters as Jesus Christ. Then it was Gorbachev was the antichrist because his birthmark was the sign of the beast. Then Bill and Hilary Clinton's posse of government officials were going to come take the children away from Christian parents, to be raised by the state. Then Obama was the antichrist or Hitler reincarnated, with a plan to put all of us Christians in prison, a la Holocaust. And throughout all of this there have been the ever present predictions for the end of the world, one as recently as for this past September 23, though that dude changed his mind the day before, so as not to embarrass himself, I presume.

And through all of this, much of this panic has been spread by those who claim to have put their faith in a sovereign, loving God. I don't get it. I don't get the paranoia. The distrust. The hand wringing. The fear. And the spreading of fear. To be honest, it just isn't helpful. It isn't encouraging. And it isn't even true.

What is true is that none of us...NONE OF US know what will happen today or tomorrow or next week or next year. I don't think we are supposed to. Henri Nouwen in his book Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life says this:

The Christian Community mediates between the suffering of the world and our individual responses to this suffering. Since the Christian community is the living presence of the mediating Christ, it enables us to e fully aware of the painful condition of the human family without being paralyzed by this awareness. In the Christian community, we can keep our eyes and ears open to all that happens without being numbed by technological overstimulation or angered by the experience of powerlessness. In the Christian Community, we can know hunger, oppression, torture, and the nuclear threat without giving into a fatalistic resignation and withdrawing into a preoccupation with personal survival. In the Christian community, we can fully recognize the condition of our society without panicking. 

Paranoia, conspiracy theories, and Chicken Little's mantra of "the sky is falling" really do nobody any good and oftentimes do nothing more than spread gloom and doom to an anxious world that needs, more than anything, compassion and encouragement. It is irresponsible to cry "fire" into social media and stand back as people stampede each other to death in an emotional frenzy. Can we be what Nouwen says we can? Can we recognize the brokenness in our world without panicking?

Whether it is North Korea or mass shootings or earthquakes or hurricanes or the moral demise of society, there are wise and helpful ways to respond. Panicking isn't one of them. So in the midst of all of these tragedies, stay calm, trust God, and reach out in compassion to your neighbor. And if you must panic, panic responsibly and keep it to yourself.