Sarah B. Wagenseller, “Why I’m Afraid of
The whole family visits my grandparents
every year around Christmas. This year, my grandmother and a couple of uncles and aunts cornered
all the college-aged grandchildren at the gathering and began firing off questions about
our opinions of the world we were inheriting – what we thought of it, how we thought
it might change, how we would change it, if only we could. Touched, lightly, with panic at
the ambush, the six of us answered as best we could, as fast as possible. When my grandmother
asked the following question, however, there was a pause in the rapid-fire question-and-answer
She asked us, “What are you most afraid
of in the world?”
She meant our generation. We all knew what
she, and all of the elders, expected us to say: terrorism. After all, these were people who
had grown up fearing a second World War, fearing Communism, fearing nuclear war, fearing
economic collapse – every decade or so had its own brand-new trend in the number one
fear among Americans, and our inquisitors had pretty much followed along faithfully. Terrorism
is the new fashion in bogeymen.
I looked at my brothers. They shrugged.
I looked at my cousins. They were looking
quizzically at each other.
I looked my grandmother square in the eye
and I said seriously, “Zombies.”
The elders were taken aback.
To explain, more eloquently than I did, there
in my grandmother’s house: Since none of the big fears of any previous generation have
really been fixed, we inherited them all. If we were afraid of everything we should be, our
generation would fear everything and its opposite: foreigners and neighbors, anarchy and
government, criminals and police, nonbelievers and fundamentalists. Crime and mental illness
alone dictate that we fear each other and ourselves.
And that’s on top of all the big things:
nuclear war, economic collapse, pollution, deforestation, massive outbreak of disease, depletion
of environmental resources. We have all of that and more, and frankly, I didn’t have
enough fear to go around as it was.
When terrorism was added to the top of all
that, I quit. I just don’t have enough! So, I lay it all at the feet of zombies. They
are as real as nuclear war and total environmental devastation, and therefore about as good
a thing to fear as anything else. Plus, who wouldn’t lose control of their bowels if
they saw a dead body running at them at top speed, much less an army of them? They are totally
irrational, and you can shoot them over and over, and they just keep coming. Also, their
bodies are room temperature, and they eat flesh! Give me nuclear holocaust any day: at least
that’s over quick, and I wouldn’t have to feel the strongest jaws in the animal
kingdom tearing into my body.
My point, at the time, was that spending
our lives fearing things that may or may not come, regardless of our input, is sort of silly,
and totally pointless. We should try to do what we can about the things we have a chance
of affecting, but there comes a point when we are powerless, and must accept whatever fate
deals, just like everyone else in the world does. I love this country, but America is isolated
and spoiled, to the point that it actually believes that being attacked or even destroyed
is something that happens to a country once in a blue moon, and only to countries that deserve
it. Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is totally destroyed every twenty years or so. They
don’t put ropes around the destruction site of every building and swear revenge: they
rebuild and move on. They make jokes about it even. When I was there, one Hungarian lady
pointed to a particularly ugly building and said, “Next time they bomb us, I hope they
get that one.”
Regardless of my point, I really am afraid
of zombies. I fear them more than any other horror movie villain, supernatural or real, and
more than anything I see on the news. For a long time, I thought it was just the unnatural
speed and the flesh-consumption. But now I suspect it goes deeper.
It’s like this: Bad things happen,
and will continue to happen, but the human spirit thus far has always prevailed. Like the
Hungarians have done again and again with their capital, we rebuild and move on. But if a
situation arose where zombies overtook the earth, turning normal, logical humans into cannibalistic
beasts with a single bite, it would be the end of the human spirit. There is no rebuilding
When the tsunami hit Southeast Asia last
Christmas, I am sure many frightened people briefly reordered their list of fears to include
natural disasters somewhere near the top. Which makes sense. According to the worst estimates,
the Earth, on average, kills about 250,000 people every year. With that kind of record, I
am surprised anyone even thinks about war or terrorism.
The death toll is now well over a hundred
thousand, and new fears are mounting every day – fears about outbreaks of disease,
too little clean water and untainted food, orphaned children being illegally trafficked,
and the staggering amount of money it will take to rebuild homes, schools, hospitals, stores,
and the like. All valid fears. But, fearing only zombies as I do, I am allowed to step back
and appreciate their opposite: rational beings capable of the most astonishing emotion I
have ever witnessed, which is compassion.
When word of the tsunami hit soon after the
tsunami itself did, millions of people from all over the world, both governmental officials
and ordinary folks, poured support on the devastated countries. Food, water, clothing, doctors,
specialists, armed forces, prayers, helping hands, and billions of dollars were immediately
made available for the lone reason that those affected were fellow people, and they needed
help. Race didn’t matter, religion didn’t matter, nationality didn’t matter.
Only humanity mattered.
Such is the nature of compassion, which is
so lovely and amazing because it is based on love for fellow humans that we’ve never
even met, which is especially amazing in a world where we are taught to fear, or even hate,
each other. Since there is no logical reason for this love, we have a word in English that
describes compassion, which is miracle. A miracle is an event that appears to be inexplicable
by the laws of nature, but which is so wonderful and beneficial that even the most austere
medieval Catholic was unwilling to refuse the gift by attributing it to witchcraft. Instead,
miracles were said to be an act of God.
Another name for an act of God, in American
idiom, is natural disaster.
Curiously, a seemingly little known fact about the Christian Bible is that it claims there is another
word for God. The word is love.
Without going any further out of my depth,
though, I think I can better explain what I really fear: I fear humans without compassion.
With up to 250,00 deaths a year credited to the Earth’s natural functions alone, it’s
obvious that everyone needs help sometime, and compassion is the only thing that drives the
momentarily stable to help the momentarily unstable. Without compassion, humans such as the
survivors in Southeast Asia wouldn’t have a chance. Without compassion, the human spirit
would be vanquished: all we’d be are a bunch of irrational consumers, absolutely individualistic,
unwilling to cooperate or help each other, unable to rebuild anything, and utterly doomed.
We’d be zombies.