Don’t Panic

Fresno Bee, March 8, 2020

A virus spreads. The stock market tumbles. Store shelves clear. People are freaking out. The best advice for times like this is: don’t panic.

Panic undermines clear thinking and makes things worse. Luckily, the cure is well known. Get the facts. Seek a broader perspective. Focus on what is under your own control. Develop habits of calmness and self-control. And acknowledge that sickness and death are part of life.

The word “panic” comes from the name of the Greek god Pan, a feral god who haunted the wild places. Pan was the god of the nightmare and the uncanny. Pan would terrify and possess people, causing panic.

One solution is to stop believing in such superstitions. The wilderness is not haunted. Gods cannot possess us. Nor is the coronavirus sign of the Apocalypse, as some preachers have suggested. And while some Christians called for a global day of prayer to stop the coronavirus, what we really need is a vaccine, better hygiene, and a robust system of public health.

The ancient philosopher, Epicurus, offered a simple cure for panic. He told us not to worry about the gods. They are busy keeping the universe in motion. They have no interest in harming us.

But if we are going to pray, we might pray for wisdom and tranquility. This is what Socrates would have prayed for. In fact, at one point Socrates offered a prayer to Pan himself. He asked the god for integrity of soul. As Socrates put it, “grant me a beautiful soul in which the inner and outer self are united as one.”

A beautiful soul is stable and secure. It is at one with itself. It dwells in the company of truth. It is moderate and self-possessed. And it is resistant to panic.

The philosopher Seneca said the best way to prevent panic is to understand it. You need to understand that when “the habit of blind panic” takes over, the mind runs away with itself.

When we are not prepared for fear and hardship, panic strikes. Seneca explains, “the unprepared are panic-stricken even at the most trifling things.” And when uncontrollable and “witless” panic arrives, things get worse. Seneca’s solution is to adopt a larger point of view that puts life, death, and panic itself in proper perspective.

It is uncertainty that keeps us on edge. The fear that occurs out in the wilderness is like the fear of the dark. We’re not sure what’s lurking out there. That’s why knowledge helps. There is nothing in the dark that is not also there in the light.

It also helps to understand that fear is natural and has a purpose. There is a tightness in the belly and shallow breathing. We scan the environment looking for threats. This is the flight or fight instinct ready to go. If a threat emerges, the body is ready to react.

But this can get out of control, especially when everyone else is on edge. Panic is contagious. We sense the anxiety of our neighbor. If even a minor spark lights the fuse of anxiety, the herd erupts into a frenzied stampede.

This is why solitude is helpful. Peace of mind is easier to find if you keep your distance from the crowd. One easy way to prevent panic is to turn off your television and stay off social media.

But for some people, solitude causes panic. There is the fear of missing out and the depressing dread of loneliness. True solitude is not lonely. It is peaceful and centered, a way of finding yourself at home in the world.

Finally, the philosophers teach that we must understand that death, loss, and injury are common. Tornadoes, earthquakes, and deadly diseases have always existed. They always will. Something will eventually kill each of us. No one gets out of this life alive.

When we come to terms with our own mortality, panic gives way to acceptance. To live well is not to fearfully cling to life. This moment will not last long. So why waste it on worry? Life is not measured in length but in depth. The shallow panting of panic prevents us from breathing deeply and living well.

Courage, common sense, and fortitude in times of terror

Scary times call for courage

Fresno Bee, December 12, 2015

These are terrifying times. Mass violence plays across our screens. Frightened people want reassurance. And fearmongers manipulate anxiety. But dread is no substitute for deliberation.

The world’s philosophical traditions teach us to temper trepidation. Here is some practical advice from the ancient philosophers. Acknowledge the inevitability of suffering. Don’t dread evil. Accept what is beyond your control. Avoid panic. Minimize violence. Overcome hate.

But panicked, violent and hateful proposals abound. Some call to ban Muslim visitors. Others want to carpet-bomb the Islamic State. Some encourage us to arm ourselves.

Bombs and bans won’t build a better world. For that we need courageous commitment to democratic and humane values. We also need to understand the nature of fear and its role in political and moral life.

Fear undermines mental health. It clouds judgment. And it feeds on itself. Scare mongering is useful as a rhetorical tool. But reactionary panic makes for bad policy and risks betraying central values.

Wisdom requires courage, justice and moderation. Moral decisions depend upon calm reflection. A key to wisdom and equanimity is careful consideration of the object of our fears. It turns out that we often fear the wrong things.


Consider the risk of mass violence. Since 1982 there have been 73 mass shootings in the United States, resulting in nearly 600 deaths. If we add in the fatalities from the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and other terror attacks on US citizens, we end up with fewer than 5,000 deaths from mass shooting and terrorism during the past 33 years.

Even one mass shooting is horrible. We should work to end these atrocities. But there is no reason to panic.

Other things are much more dangerous. There are around 16,000 homicides and 38,000 poisoning deaths every year. Approximately 2,000 people are killed annually by weather-related causes. More than 33,000 people are killed yearly in vehicular traffic.

We accept the risk of driving, while taking common sense precautions: drive carefully and buckle up. But no one is panicking about traffic deaths. No one is calling for background checks on vehicle ownership or radical changes in the speed limit. No one is calling for a ban on alcohol or drunken driving, even though drunken driving is much more deadly than terrorism. Drunken drivers kill 28 people every day – more than 10,000 people per year.

Some fears are magnified because we associate them with evil. Death by terrorism seems worse than death by drunken driving. Fear of evil seems more dreadful than fear of accidental death. But one wonders why that matters: When you are dead, you are dead.

Rhetoricians manipulate our fear of evil. They also manipulate our hopes and dreams. Hope is, in a sense, the opposite of fear. Hope can moderate fear. But unrealistic hope also clouds judgment. We hope that war, crime and atrocity will be abolished. We hope that politicians will behave themselves. We hope that rationality will prevail. We hope that evil will disappear. Or we hope that strangers will conform to our expectations.


But history dashes these hopes. We should give up hope for a perfect, risk-free world. Evil people will always exist. Idiocy often overcomes common sense. Politicians routinely fail to impress. And diversity is a fact of life. We may wish things were otherwise. But wishing does not make it so.

Like fear, hope is a tool of demagogues that is used to hoodwink and manipulate. The danger of hope is that when idealistic hope crashes on the rocks of reality, despair sets in. Cynical hopelessness is as dangerous as ruthless idealism.

The key is moderation. Equanimity develops from understanding the nature of hope and fear. Fear is useful – when it is based on facts and prevented from becoming paranoia. Hope is also useful – when it is modest and limited in scope. Without moderation, however, hope and fear overwhelm good judgment.

A temperate mind is immune to the buffeting winds of fortune and the alluring buzz of political hot air. Wisdom teaches that evil is unavoidable, suffering is inevitable, panic is counterproductive, and good judgment is difficult and rare. Understanding this can liberate us from fear. Philosophical fortitude frees us from reactionary outrage and allows us to build a better world, one fearless step at a time.

Read more here:

Don’t be afraid of no ghost

The Fear of Ghosts

Fresno Bee, October 31, 2015

A recent survey from Chapman University found that more than 40 percent of Americans believe in ghosts. The study also found that those who believe in ghosts tend to be generally more fearful.

It stands to reason that seeing a ghost may make you paranoid. But paranoia also can open the door to paranormal beliefs. The cure for the fear of phantoms is to cultivate tranquil mindfulness, a life of virtue and a reasonable approach to ghosts.

free-halloween-ghostFor example, it is not clear how ghosts could harm us. Ghosts are supposedly immaterial beings. They pass through walls and rise out of graves. A ghost’s spiritual nature makes it difficult to conceive a ghost physically harming us. That 1990 movie “Ghost” makes this clear: Patrick Swayze’s ghost has trouble making contact with the material world.

This problem undermines the claims of those who say that ghosts show up in photographs or on recordings. If ghosts have no material reality, they can’t be photographed or recorded. Phantom photos and spooky sounds are best explained in natural terms as shadows, echoes or glitches in recording devices.

Naturalists explain ghosts as projections of the mind. Charles Darwin, for example, suggested that the animal imagination gives birth to ghosts. Animals are ever alert to the presence of threatening agents.

Swirling dust or flickering light can prompt us to see a phantom presence and prime the fight-or-flight response. Darwin explained that his own dog tended to react to unexpected movement as if there were an unseen spiritual entity at work – growling fiercely and barking when a parasol was moved by a breeze.

Of course, a ghost’s most terrifying power is not physical. Ghosts are spiritual beings who can invade our minds and trouble our dreams. Consider the great ghosts of literature. The specters that haunt Hamlet, Macbeth or Scrooge assault the mind, planting seeds of doubt and despair.

Such ghosts can be explained as psychic creations, frightening figments of the imagination – unconscious anxieties brought to life and projected on the world. Even so, the dread is real whether we actually are haunted by spectral beings or merely are afflicted by the eerie emanations of the subconscious.

Behind all of this may be the fear of death, which Freud supposed was the source of the experience of the uncanny. The thought of death and the presence of dead bodies can send shivers down the spine. Those shudders can feel like a haunting. But the tickle on the neck and the hair-raising shudder is really the body pumping adrenaline, tuning up the senses, getting ready to fight or flee.

The dread of the uncanny can lead to dizziness and a feeling of unreality. The familiar seems suddenly foreign. The senses tingle. Panic and paranoia arise as the imagination runs wild. And ghosts may appear.

Walk down a dark and desolate street late on Halloween night. Your breathing becomes shallow. Your eyes open as you search the gloom. Odd images flicker in the corner of the eye. Rustling leaves hint that something is lurking. In the frisson of fear, shadows appear as spooks and specters.

On Halloween, we are told that the door between the living and the dead opens a crack. I doubt that the dead really do come back to haunt us. But there is no doubt that the mind can be visited by phantoms and figments, including vivid memories of the dead.

The experience of being haunted is as real as the experience of fear, guilt, sorrow and shame. The living often are afflicted by grief, remorse, anguish and regret. Our minds are haunted by memory and loss. Beneath much of this is the uncanny recognition that we, too, will someday slip through the crack of death into that undiscovered country, from which no traveler returns.

We should give due respect to the dead. But good people have nothing to fear from ghosts or from death. Tranquil mindfulness cures the anxiety, guilt and shame that ghosts exploit. Mindfulness helps us live in peace with our memories of the dead. And a virtuous life provides stability in the face of the uncanny fact that each of us will someday shuffle off this mortal coil and exit through the ghostly gate.

Read more here: