Is it possible to scare ourselves to death?

For our prehistorical ancestors, fear was a valuable tool, helping us stay away from predators and other dangers. Since we humans figured out how to create our own food by farming, we have had plenty of downtime to sit around and create cities, towns, governments, art, weapons, technology, currency, and many other advancements in our society. But despite this progress, the inherent survival mechanisms that make us afraid of potential threats, whether legitimate or imaginary, have not gone away.

The trouble with humankind is with each forward thinker we have who can perceive, describe, and warn of legitimate threats, we have several other people who are afraid of made-up problems perpetuated by everyone from mass media to celebrities and politicians to our friends and acquaintances on social media.

Instead of fearing legitimate problems that could wipe humanity off the face of the planet, such as nuclear winter or climate change, most people allow sensationalist Big Media to instead whip them into a fury about all sorts of other things: Ebola, Muslims, scary black people like Willie Horton, drug dealers, kidnappers, and anything else that produces clicks for a website and viewers on television.

Not only do these things certainly not have the ability to wipe out humankind, but statistically you’re far more likely to die in a car accident or of heart disease than be a victim of any of these other bogeymen who receive far more coverage and attention. And those who have irrational fears get to cast the same vote as more rational thinkers. Whether the fear-mongering mass media is truly sinister in its intentions (I doubt it) or if they are just trying to make money is irrelevant; these influential entities have (probably inadvertently) instilled the irrational fear by playing on the raw instincts of survival in human beings.

This is why legitimate journalism and education are so important. An uneducated, scared populace is bound to go against their own interests. That is a huge problem, as I think most people can otherwise fulfill their wants and needs in a relatively harmless fashion.

Instead, they are bound to ignore legitimate threats while greedy people capitalize on their fears for financial gain, often at the expense of people and planet. To appease their fears, irrational or not, they flock to demagogues like Donald Trump who promise them that everything will be OK — he will fix their fears. And because a source like Fox News wants a guy like Trump in office, they will run stories to support the idea that he is fixing these made-up problems; we have already seen this, most recently when Trump “allowed” people to “say Merry Christmas again.”

These non-existent fears are very real to these people. A drug dealer could get their kids addicted to drugs. A Muslim terrorist could kill them. A transgender person could rape their kids in a bathroom. They won’t be allowed to celebrate Christmas. All completely irrational and demonstrably overblown, yet very real to those who believe them — they think these problems occur all around them every day, even though they don’t.

Part of me wonders if the reason we haven’t met other intelligent life yet is because it is impossible for any advanced species to progress without destroying themselves first. We would have to assume other planets, among the billion that may be fostering life, have evolved in similar fashion as ours, with fear and hypervigilance playing a key role in the survival of any species.

Once a species becomes intelligent enough to progress beyond what we see today, though, can they survive long enough to explore outer space, or do their fears get the best of them before that can ever occur?

Fortunately, I believe there is an awakening going on. I think a lot of people suspect something is deeply out of sorts with the direction the world is heading. I am hopeful that we can collectively turn off our televisions, begin trusting legitimate news sources, get decent educations, and truly make America, and the world, great. We just can’t let fear win.

Sam Shain lives in Hallowell.