“Stranger Danger” Fans Our Fears

The world seems to be coming apart at the seams, so the question we should each be asking ourselves is how can we not follow that trend? It’s not that hard. You’re safer than you think.

You’re never completely safe. Eliminating every risk is impossible. Caskets offer something close to absolute security, until bugs eventually intrude or an asteroid careens our planet out of its temperate orbit.

After you die, your body is not completely protected. It’s just that you care less. Our challenge today is grounded in the opposite condition. We’re being trained to care so much that anxiety colors our everyday activities. Whenever that happens, as the saying unfortunately goes, terrorism wins.

Until the early 1960s, television network news was only 15 minutes long every weeknight. Walter Cronkite pushed for it to be doubled in response to Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963. News has been expanding ever since. Well, no. News hasn’t expanded. News coverage has expanded. We have 24-hour news networks now, but not enough news to fill them, so stories — especially sensational ones — are endlessly repeated.

As a former editor at The Register-Guard liked to remind audiences, when 999 airplanes land safely, that’s not news. When one doesn’t, it is. But we’re not reminded about the 999 when we’re told about the one.

You may have heard the adage that governs many a newsroom: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Fear captures attention better than anything else. Advertisers like that. Changing the channel of turning it off is getting harder.

News consumption is no longer limited to appointment viewing or our daily commute. We may get pinged with a news alert on our phones while hiking in the wilderness. News often pops up while we’re checking a recipe or looking at a relative’s vacation photos.

So our dilemma is defined.

The news we’re told is mostly bad, shorn of context and unavoidable.

What can we do to remind ourselves of all the good that makes the occasional bad so notable? I have a few suggestions, all aiming to overcome the “stranger danger” fear instilled in us when we were young.

Pick from this menu or make up your own. Each sounds a little bit frightening, but that’s the stranger danger reflex speaking.

My most ambitious suggestion is simpler than you would guess. Become an airbnb host. Or use airbnb or some other home stay alternative the next time you travel. I’ve done both and this is what I’ve learned. Almost everybody you meet is normal, considerate, even sometimes delightful.

Yes, there are occasional hiccups. There was the guest who asked for the wifi to be turned off because she was “very sensitive.” There was the chap who requested his sheets be washed twice with unscented detergent before he arrived. Or the fellow who wandered into our living room, asking if he could use our computer printer.

But those memorable few are vastly outnumbered by the people who are thoughtful and generous, respectful, helpful and grateful.

If that sounds too ambitious for you, try this. Use this newspaper’s classified ads (or Craig’s List, if you prefer) to buy or sell something not too expensive — a coffee pot, a bedspread, a tent, a bicycle. You’ll meet strangers who may have nothing in common with you except the thing that was listed. If the exchange proceeds, a need will be met between two people who don’t know one another. Almost certainly, nothing bad will happen.

Here’s the simplest one, and you may already be doing it every day. Ride an elevator with somebody you don’t know. While you’re doing it, remind yourself how risky it is to be enclosed in a metal box with people you don’t know. They could pull that red button and stop the car between floors. But they don’t. Over and over, day in and day out.

That’s what life is really like. Life resembles that elevator ride much more than anything you’re likely to see on the news. We can’t do much to mend the world’s seams, but we can change for ourselves how the world seems.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.