{getting it} The Worst-Case Scenario Part II

by Rachel on May 22, 2012

A year ago, if you’d asked me to list the things I am afraid of, this would have been my list:

1. Sharks.

2. Having someone break into my apartment to rape and kill me.

That was it. I don’t know if it’s really all that rational or not, but it’s a pretty short list, and I never felt like it was affecting my quality of life.

Now? “List” isn’t even the right word. I need a fucking outline.

I. Fears about kidnapping, assault, rape, and murder

a. I’m the victim and a stranger is the perpetrator.

b. I’m the victim and MY HUSBAND IS THE PERPETRATOR.

c. I’m the victim and nobody cares because I’m not a pretty white woman.

d. Someone I care about is the victim.

II. Fears about my future children

a. They will be bullied.

b. They will bully someone else.

c. They will be kidnapped, assaulted, raped, and murdered.

d. They will kidnap, assault, rape, or murder someone.

e. They will be Republican.

f. Wait, am I even going to be able to have children?!?!

III. Fears about diseases

a. I will get a disease.

i. Every time I have a stomachache or a headache, I’m clearly dying.

ii. I’m worried that this chicken isn’t cooked all the way through and also, even though I wore latex gloves when I was touching that chicken and washed my hands (and nails too, duh), I’m still afraid to touch anything in the kitchen for the rest of the night.

iii. I’m really stressed that I’m not getting to the gym enough to lower my stress, which will keep me from dying from being stressed because STRESS KILLS.

b. Someone I love will get a disease.
i. The people I love clearly do not eat enough vegetables to keep them from dying young.

ii. YOU FORGOT TO WEAR SUNSCREEN GOLFING?! ARE YOU TRYING TO MAKE ME A WIDOW AT 30?!?!

c. Don’t forget about that recent flesh-eating bacteria case.

IV. Fears that the Mayans were right

a. Natural disasters.

b. The War on Women.

c. Economic collapse.

d. The Hunger Games really happens.

(This would make an excellent PowerPoint presentation, don’t you think?)

OK, so — my wise coworker took one look at my outline and said, “So…it just looks like you’ve been watching the evening news.” And…he’s right. I mean, I’ve written before about how watching too much “Law & Order: SVU” makes me behave irrationally, but I think the outline above has a lot to do with the fact that I’ve been watching a ton more television since Eric and I moved in together. Left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t even own a TV, but it’s Eric’s preferred relaxation activity and he loves having “our shows” together, so, whatever, I can get more into it. We start each day watching the news, followed by “The Today Show” while we have breakfast. The best part of waking up is…at least 30 minutes of fear-mongering? In the evening and on the weekends, we watch a lot of true-crime stories and “SVU.” (There is always a marathon on somewhere.)

After I realized how long my list had gotten, and how these fears are affecting my everyday behavior (it’s not full-blown anxiety, but I feel like it still warrants some thought), I started wondering why what I was watching on TV was leading me worry so much and create such detailed plans for how to handle all these awful potential situations. Though not all women are stressed about these worst-case-scenario type situations — and not all men aren’t — I initially wondered if my fears had to do with the fact that I’m a woman. After all, the men in my life seemed unfazed by the exact same TV shows and news reports.

When I thought about all the scare-the-shit-out-of-you stories that I consume on a regular basis, I realized that most of the victims — whether they are victims of cancer or sexual assault or necrotizing fasciitis — are female. Well, someone is making the call to show more female victims than male victims on TV or in news stories; do they want to keep women afraid? If I feel like I need a man to come along with me every time I go out after dark, it’s pretty easy to start thinking that men are strong and women are weak in other areas of my life too. And then there is the fact that fear and stress make people spend more money. If women are the ones controlling the purchasing decisions in most households, it’s good for business if they believe that buying more bleach will protect them. Could it be that someone is out to get us by making us think everyone is out to get us?

Though that is one possible explanation, I — like many women — am not exactly changing the channel. Neither are men. And why aren’t we? Perhaps it’s just goes back to the fact that huma beings like being scared. In the book How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, which I read last year, author Paul Bloom makes the argument that humans enjoy things like watching scary movies or gawking at highway accidents because it allows us to “practice” what we’d do in that situation. It makes sense that we’d want to safely explore new, scary situations.

We are drawn, then, to worst-case scenarios. The details of the scenarios are often irrelevant. It’s not that we enjoy zombie films because we need to prepare for the zombie uprising. We don’t have to plan for what to do if we accidentally kill our fathers or marry our mothers. But even these exotic cases serve as useful practice for bad times, exercising our psyches for when life goes to hell. From this perspective, it’s not the zombies that make zombie films so compelling, it is that the theme of zombies is a clever way to frame stories about being attacked by strangers and betrayed by those we love. This is what attracts us; the brain eating is an optional extra.

So I can see why people are drawn to these shows, and I can acknowledge that maybe the news or the networks are just giving the viewers what they demand. But I’m still wondering why Eric and I can both watch these shows, but I’m the one who is more into this type of programming and I’m the one taking action because of it. Sure, it might be because statistically, I’m more likely to be raped than he is, but I think it goes deeper than that.

Then my friend Dallas shared a quote with with me from the book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women that was my getting it moment for why I keep consuming these worst-case scenarios.

We are the girls with anxiety disorders, filled appointment books, five-year plans. We take ourselves very, very seriously. We are the peacemakers, the do-gooders, the givers, the savers. We are on time, overly prepared, well read, and witty, intellectually curious, always moving… We pride ourselves on getting as little sleep as possible and thrive on self-deprivation. We drink coffee, a lot of it. We are on birth control, Prozac, and multivitamins… We are relentless, judgmental with ourselves, and forgiving to others. We never want to be as passive-aggressive are our mothers, never want to marry men as uninspired as our fathers… We are the daughters of the feminists who said, “You can be anything,” and we heard, “You have to be everything.”

When I read that quote, I realized that I enjoy watching these shows and reading these stories because I equate being prepared with being good at life. At some point, I got the message from the media and those around me that good people do what they are told (wear SPF, bleach the kitchen countertops, always walk with your keys in your hand when walking to your car) and bad things happen to people who don’t. The troubling extension of this — the idea that if someone is a victim, it’s because he or she didn’t just try hard enough not be — was constantly reinforced. Every TV show and news story or lesson from my mother left me feeling like I had an assignment: never get put in the trunk of someone’s car, but if you do, you better not die. On some level, I liked feeling afraid because it gave me a new opportunity for self-improvement.

My list has been growing because no matter what I do, it’s never going to be good enough — after all, there will always be something to be afraid of. And you know? I’m really not OK with that. Being prepared is fine, being afraid of sharks is fine, but needing a bodyguard just to go to Target because I’m worried about the rapist flesh-eating shark that was attacking women for trying to get birth control prescriptions filled at a Target in another state is not fine. The only thing to fear is fear itself? You got that right. I can own that the stuff I see on TV freaks me out, but I can’t let my fear outline fill me with self-doubt. I’m not going to start taking huge risks, but I am going to cut myself off from the behaviors and purchases that, while done in the name of empowerment, are actually making me feel powerless.

I know a lot of people identified with my “worst-case scenario” fears and admit that what they see on TV freaks them out, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on what might cause some of us to freak out and worry about being prepared more than others. Let’s discuss!