We are all born with an innate sense of fear as a survival mechanism. It is natural to feel fear when confronted with something we do not understand. When we were simpler creatures, we could live a bit longer by assuming something was dangerous and staying away, rather than assuming it was safe only to find it considered us tasty. Take for example a primitive ancestor out for a leisurely stroll in a nearby field one sunny afternoon, perhaps after a hearty lunch or a much needed nap. While walking through a patch of tall weeds he trips over an unexpected object and hears rustling in the grass. He doesn’t see what he stumbled over, but he knows large venomous snakes are common in the area. He chooses to run. He has only happened upon a dead branch in the weeds, but if he had just assumed this and it had been an actual snake, he would have been in trouble for sticking around. Fear is a natural reaction for any intelligent life-form with self-preservation in mind.
As we have evolved, we still carry this gut reaction. Rather than being a useful tool for our survival, it now acts as a hindrance to our lives. Living within any culture bedeviled with archaic beliefs and superstitions, we are often told that certain thoughts, emotions or objects are bad or evil by their very essence. We are given simple explanations as to why these things are believed to be iniquitous, and if it is an idea generally accepted by our peers we will often take it at face value. It is simpler to adopt a preconceived notion than to explore and discover new experiences for ourselves; this is often the path of least resistance when trying to fit in amongst peers. Other times we may draw our own conclusions that something is wicked simply because we don’t like it, or we don’t understand it fully – such as waking to an ominous sound in the middle of the night, or shadows moving suddenly as we walk home on a dreary winter evening. Whatever the case may be, we tend to irrationally label these as bad things and assign a degree of fear to them. Fear causes us to shun, rather than seek to understand.
As with many things that I ponder these days, I am taken back to an event from my childhood. One fall afternoon a few days before Halloween, I walked through the usual maze of back yards to my friend’s house. The neighbors never complained, and it cut a ten minute walk down to two. His parents always treated me as if I were one of their own, and today was no exception. Upon entering the house, his mother told me she was about to make some hot cocoa and asked if I would like some. “Yes, please,” – that sounded delightful. I went to my friend’s room where I found him practicing a game on his Atari 2600, one at which we were planning on mercilessly competing against one another in a short while. We decided to go hang out in the kitchen and eagerly await the tasty treat we were anticipating. I watched as his parents gathered the ingredients; a gallon of milk, a can of chocolate powder, a large mixing bowl and a wooden spoon. They poured the milk into the bowl and mixed in the chocolate, and then placed the bowl into the microwave oven.
Back in 1986, my family did not own a microwave oven. We had just barely acquired our first VCR. I had heard some grown-ups talking about microwave ovens before, quite sure that using radiation to cook food would be horrible for our health – why just look at the disaster caused by all that radiation in Chernobyl a few months back! I didn’t have any personal experience with microwaves, but if adults whom I trusted said they were bad, then certainly they must be bad. I was nervous about radioactive anything, since it was all over the news recently. I was paranoid about falling ill with any disease, and at the top of this list were AIDS and cancer. I knew in my heart of hearts that microwave radiation would maliciously and intentionally give me cancer. “I just remembered, I have to help my mom with some things around the house today. I’ve gotta go!” I said, as I backed my way towards the door, thanking them for the offer of hot cocoa. “Maybe another time!”
I was afraid of what that nuclear beverage would do to my insides, and didn’t have the heart to tell my friend or his family that it was going to kill them all. Rather than finding a way to express my fear and politely decline the offer only after seeing how it was prepared, I fled. Natural survival instincts had kicked in, and self-preservation was at stake! I spent the rest of the evening at home, bored, with nothing to do and no chores to help my mom with. All because I didn’t understand how a microwave oven worked, and had ranked it right alongside Hitler at the top of a list entitled ‘Things that are evil’.
The moral of the story is that we should always seek out the facts and put forth an effort to understand something before we blindly classify it as villainous and refuse any further mention or inquiry. We should ask ourselves how we know that this object or idea is bad, who has done the research, what was the outcome of this research, and just how awful is it? Is it little-scratch-bad, or bone-through-skin-bad? Is there any documented proof of this, have we seen it for ourselves, or are we taking it all on hearsay?
I encourage everyone to break out of their comfort zones: find a subject that you have condemned as abominable and fully reevaluate it. Why do you believe it to be bad? If it’s a lack of understanding, seek out information on the subject and educate yourself. Maybe it doesn’t suit your personal tastes, but is it actually harmful to yourself or to others? Is it something that your parents or peers have long believed to be bad because they were told this was the gospel truth? I am finding that my newfound inquisitive approach is allowing me to see things in new light. I frequently ask myself, “Is this just not my style, or is it truly bad for me or anyone else?”
In some cases, things are truly bad: heroin, crystal meth, drunk driving. These are harmful to people and contribute to many issues; poor health, hospitalization and termination of life. In some cases, things are alright: a homosexual relationship, pre-marital sex, legalizing marijuana. If the sex is consensual and safe, then whom is it hurting? If we legalize pot, I’m sure the same people smoking it now will continue, and those who don’t wont start; legality is hardly the issue. It doesn’t seem to have any lasting harmful effects, other than laziness and the munchies, and a stoned person is far less likely to be out in the world killing people or otherwise causing harm. Legalize it and regulate it, just like alcohol. Let people love whomever they choose, and let them express it however they want as long as they’re being safe and responsible, and all parties involved have given consent.
As I put forth effort to make sense of and understand things, I find that giving it rational thought leads me to see many things as acceptable, even if I don’t agree with them on a personal level. We don’t need to instinctually shun what we don’t understand when we are not in immediate danger anymore. We’ve evolved beyond the need; now we just need to try to ease out of the reaction.