June 17, 2015

My Worst Fear

Hospital room (Denmark, 2005)Image via Wikipedia
Like most humans, I am afraid of all sorts of things. Many of my fears are irrational. My rational mind knows that the fear is not realistic but it still manages to have an emotional impact. I'll give you an example. I am afraid of spiders. I have been for as long as I can remember. This is not a rational fear, and I suspect it can be traced back to growing up in an area where exposure to black widow spiders was relatively high. I suppose that after enough scolding to stay away from the woodpile where at least one of the spiders could often be found, the fear was pretty well established. But the degree to which this fear has generalized to all spiders leads me to recognize just how irrational it is. Fortunately, my life has not been appreciably affected by this particular fear. Even though I regularly encounter spiders, they do not provoke the same level of fear they used to.

My greatest fear is even more irrational than the relatively trivial example of spiders and is a bit more difficult to get my head around. My worst fear is a fairly recent phenomenon that seems to have developed slowly over the last 10-15 years or so. It involves being hospitalized for a serious illness or injury. But it is what happens at the hospital that is the subject of the fear. I am deprived effective medical care, allowed to suffer various indignities, and perhaps even tortured by evangelical fundamentalist Christian nurses who somehow learn that I do not share their belief in gods and decide that I am not worthy of care or compassion.

The roots of this fear go way back in that I have always hated hospitals and have many negative associations with them. Given some of my experiences in hospitals, this makes good sense. I know this is a big part of why this particular fear has such intensity. Still, the part specific to atheism seems so ridiculous, far-fetched, and even paranoid. Of course, I never claimed this fear was a rational one. It isn't.

Although I have generally had positive experiences with medical professionals, I have spent enough time working in hospitals to hear how some medical staff talk about patients under their care when they do not approve of something about them. As much as I would like to think that they would never actually mistreat someone on the basis of religious belief, I have seen medical staff mistreat patients for much lesser "offenses" than refusing to accept culturally-sanctioned superstitions. In my irrational fear, I seem to take those few examples, blow them up to be far worse, and imagine them happening to me in an unrealistic way.

If it sounds like I am trying to justify this fear, I'm not. I'm just trying to explain it the best I can. Other than preventing me from ever getting an atheist or any other sort of anti-religious tattoo and fueling the occasional nightmare, I'm not sure that it will affect me. At least, I hope it won't.

I mention this fear here because I think it is easy to lose sight of our own irrationality at times. The problem isn't just them; it is us too. I have been writing more about freethought recently, and one of the points I have been trying to make is that I think it can help protect us from irrationality, ideology, polarization, tribalism, and the like. Part of this means that it is important to be more aware of our own irrationality and take measures to reduce it (e.g., reason, skepticism, critical thinking, a commitment to honest self-examination). This fear is one of many examples of my irrationality. As I pursue freethought, it is important to become more aware of the others and do what I can to improve.

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