Another day, another grab bag of worries. Maybe you’re spending more money than you earn. Or you suspect that your kid’s blank stare might be a sign of autism. Last night’s episode of Desperate Housewives has you convinced that your wife is banging the plumber. You’d be able to enjoy the Fed’s latest interest-rate cut if you weren’t so preoccupied with the looming recession. Oh, and no need to install that pool you always wantedthere will be plenty of water in your back yard to swim in once the polar ice caps melt.
In so many ways we live in enchanted times. Thanks to the Web, if we want, we can answer client e-mails while watching sex tapes on YouPorn.com. We have enough leisure time to accessorize our iPods and polish our Priuses. We live in a country that’s at war, yet this affects our daily lives only when the guy from the TSA asks us to take the mouthwash out of our carry-on.
But talk to any guy over the age of 30 and you’d think he’s being persecuted in the same way Protestants were during the Spanish Inquisition. We’re a nation of nervous wrecks. Subprime mortgages, collapsing industries, toxic toys, sexual predators, “super” microbes, geopolitical meltdown, disappearing rain forestslately just getting through the day is like taking a cruise on the S.S. Hieronymus Bosch. And that’s without even taking into account paying bills, monitoring your sperm count, avoiding trans fats, backing up your hard drive, and keeping your teeth as white as Ryan Seacrest’s.
“We’re living in the safest time in human history,” says Barry Glassner, a University of Southern California sociologist and author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. “People live longer. Crime is down. And yet fear and anxiety are major national disorders. More and more people behave like they can’t cope. Where is the disjuncture?”
The first answer is that success in the modern world depends partly on being high-strung. According to scientists, in times of uncertainty we take survival cues from the part of the brain called the amygdala, which triggers the fight-or-flight response. The same gray matter that once had us outrunning woolly mammoths now has us stocking up on anti-bacterial cleansers, home-security systems, impact-resistant Escalades, and far crazier shit.
Following the shootings in Columbine, a couple of fortysomething dads from Boston named Mike Pelonzi and Joe Curran were so panicked they came up with My Child’s Pack, a kid’s book bag with a bulletproof back panel. They’ve sold more than 1,000 this year alone. Other parents, spooked by how competitive admission to top universities has become, pay college consultants like Michele Hernandez up to $40,000 a student to make sure there’s ivy on those acceptance letters. And guys as young as their late twenties are opting to have vasectomies rather than risk knocking up their honeys and being saddled with child-support payments. As Justin Moran, 29, recently told Salon, “I got tired of sweating bullets until Aunt Flo came for her monthly visit.”