I sometimes wonder how it is that so many people in the Western world seem to have become scared of almost everything. They’re scared of tobacco smoke, scared of alcohol, scared of sugar, scared of fat, scared of red meat, scared of climate change. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Why has this happened?
It could be that they’ve just been told by ‘experts’ of one sort or other that they ought to be scared, and so they’ve become scared. But I think it has to be a bit deeper than that. I think they must also be in some way predisposed to be scared. They have somehow become more easy to scare than people usually are.
I wonder if soldiers are like that? I get the impression that they’re not. And also the last thing any of the scared people would do would be to enlist in an army. After all, if they’re frightened of tobacco smoke, then they’re going to be a lot more frightened of bullets and bombs.
I read somewhere a delightful little story from the First World War a week or two back. It began with a British soldier who had been captured by the Germans, and as he was being led into captivity he had the feeling – for the first time in the whole war – that he was going to survive it. And, after all, he was most likely to spend the rest of the war in a POW camp, and so he probably was going to survive. But the flip side of this was that, while he was a British soldier sitting in a trench somewhere, and being machine-gunned and shelled by the Germans, he had not expected to survive. In fact, in such circumstances, every morning he woke up, he may have been surprised that he was still alive. And there must have been many occasions – like the middle of a bombardment, when shells were exploding all around him – when he was convinced he was going to die.
Someone in such circumstances is unlikely to think about what he’ll be doing in year’s time, or 10 years time. In fact, he might not even think about what he’s going to be doing in a week’s time. Very often, he just hopes he’s going to survive the next 10 minutes. He was scared, very scared, but he was scared of something that could happen right now.
But once he had been captured, and penned in a POW camp somewhere in Germany, he probably stopped thinking that he was going to die any second now. Instead he probably thought about what would happen next month, and even next year. He might have wondered when the war would end, and what he would do after the war was over. Would he marry his girlfriend? Would he raise a family? Would he be able to go back to his old job? But he probably wouldn’t be able to think much further than that.
For much of my life, I’ve operated with a similar sort of time horizon. I’ve looked a year or two ahead, sometimes more. I’ve usually had enough money saved so that if I lost my job I’d have enough to last a few years. And so these days, when I’ve got rather more money than I used to have, I wonder what might be happening in 10 years time.
But what about people who are much more well-to-do than I am? Their time horizons – the furthest they can see ahead – must be accordingly greater. They most likely are looking 25 or 50 years ahead, maybe even further. And the things that they worry about are things that might happen in 30 or 40 years time. Unlike the soldier in his trench, who doesn’t expect to survive until tomorrow, such people may expect to survive to the age of 100 or more, and so they tend to dwell on the things that might happen over the next 25 or 50 years.
And this is where fears about smoking and lung cancer start to creep in. Because that’s supposed to take 30 or 40 years to develop. And it’s the same with alcohol and sugar and salt and fat and red meat and aluminium saucepans and all the rest of it. And global warming is something that’s always 50 years ahead. And so it’s people who fully expect to be around in 50 years time who start worrying about these sorts of dangers, because they’re looking that far ahead.
A soldier in a trench isn’t going to worry about the health threat in the dim and distant future posed by smoking, or drinking, or eating sausages and chips – because he doesn’t expect to live that long. He’s just glad for a relaxing smoke now and then in the middle of the mayhem around him. And glad of a beer or two. And glad of a plate of hot sausages and chips, and a mug of tea to go with it.
So maybe this is where the modern growing terror of more or less everything arises. It comes from the fact that people expect to live long lives, and their time horizons are accordingly long. They’re not so much worried about what will happen tomorrow, or even next year, but instead what might happen 10 or 20 or even 50 years in the future. And, because the future becomes ever more uncertain the further anyone tries to see, the greater the number of things are found that could potentially go wrong over such time scales. And so people – and usually quite well-to-do people – become scared of everything.
If you think that you might live forever (and these days quite a few people seem to think something like this), you become frightened of everything. But if you think you could die in the next five minutes, you’re completely fearless.
The old pagan homily, “Eat, drink, and be merry – for tomorrow we die,” loses much of its force when it becomes, “Eat, drink, and be merry – for in a century’s time we die.”
I didn’t finish the story of the captive British soldier. He did indeed find himself in a POW camp in Germany, well away from the fighting. And a few days after he had arrived, a German officer came and asked the POWs whether any of them were Roman Catholics. Three or four of them raised their hands, and their names were noted. And the next Sunday, to their surprise, they were called for, and were marched out of the camp to the local Catholic church to attend its service, alongside ordinary German people. And when they were marching back again, and they were passing a hostelry, the German officer who was leading them asked if they would like to have a beer. To which request they promptly agreed, of course. And so it was after having a couple of beers that they eventually arrived back at the camp.
And the following week, the number of Catholics in the POW camp had increased from just three to nearly thirty.