It’s interesting to note how many times Jesus moved to calm the fears of his frightened followers of that time and of today with the gentle phrase, “Fear not.” He didn’t say there was not a problem. His words suggested that, whatever the problem was, it could be solved. He didn’t encourage frenzied action, he encouraged calm.
In addition to drawing believers to faith, there’s a matter of leadership here. Demagogues prey on and encourage fear and chaos. Leaders offer reassurance and encourage calm. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his first inaugural address to a weary and frightened nation, stated his belief that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and he later offered by radio periodic “fireside chats,” reassuring explanations of what was happening and what solutions he was offering. Certainly there were people who disagreed with and even hated him, but a significant portion of the population was reassured and steadied by his own calm steadiness.
Early in my Army career, it became clear to me that effective leaders exhibited calmness and freedom from fear under pressure. I believed that I deserved that from my leaders and that those who were placed in my charge deserved it from me, no matter what my personal feelings might be. I would never play to others’ fear, but would try to minimize it. I knew I might never be the smartest guy around, nor the most courageous, but I intended to make a run at being the calmest. Reacting this way in all kinds of stressful situations quickly got to be a habit, and it proved to be good for those looking to me for guidance and for my superiors as well. And I found that refusing to exhibit fear tended to drain away some of the fear I might be hiding.
This has all come to mind a lot in recent years, as I’ve watched people who might not consider themselves leaders, but who are. I’m thinking of television news and weather folks. They reach vast numbers of citizens who are looking for information and guidance, and the way they present it can either tamp down fear or increase it. Too many seem determined to increase it.
Maybe I’m just not remembering clearly, but I can’t recall ever seeing Walter Cronkite or Eric Sevareid or David Brinkley or Chet Huntley or Edward R. Murrow sounding frantic, no matter how bad the news they were relaying. They exuded calm. Awful catastrophes might happen, but there was no drama in their reporting, just facts. It’s bad, they were saying, but fear not. We’ll get through this. By contrast, too many of their modern counterparts seem unable to avoid adding drama, the way some writers add exclamation points to tell me when I should be excited by what I just read.
This leaning toward frenzy is often present in modern reports of bad weather. It was especially so in recent descriptions of the advance of Hurricane Irma. Normally desk-bound specialists stood out in knee-deep water, staggering against gale-force winds, and shouted unintelligible messages of impending disaster at their viewers. Repeatedly. Endlessly. More understandable but no less frightening warnings of disaster were offered, with dramatic urgency, by other people who at least had the good sense to be inside and out of the weather they were describing.
My house sits in a low valley at the confluence of two creeks. A jungle of trees, many huge and towering, crowd in around it on three sides. Severe rainstorms can bring the creeks out of their banks. While the house is moderately above the flood zone, the driveway, long and winding through woods, is not, and I have been marooned for a day or two on more than one occasion, with the water too deep to drive through. Trees, anchored in soil always moist, topple with disturbing frequency.
So I don’t need somebody on television encouraging me to be afraid. Fear is not new to me. Just give me the facts. Quickly, before the power goes off. And instead of adding drama, just remind me to fear not.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”