Letting fear rule your life

Halloween night at Disneyland - photo by E. Jurus
Halloween night at Disneyland – photo by E. Jurus

There’s been quite a kerfuffle in the Niagara Region over the past few days.  A number of elementary schools have announced that they’re no longer letting their students dress up in Halloween costumes. The students will be allowed to dress in orange and black and celebrate what’s being called a Spirit Day.

Officially the premise is that Spirit Day is a more ‘inclusive’ celebration, and to a certain extent I can understand the desirability for inclusion, but when it comes to Halloween, in my experience there’s always someone’s hidden agenda when celebrations of this much-loved holiday are quashed. In other words, someone has religious objections.

Everyone has the right to practice their own religion, but they don’t have the right to impose their own restrictions on other people. For those who aren’t comfortable with the concept of Halloween, it’s easy for them to abstain from the celebrations. Destroying the fun for others is mean-spirited.

Let me state categorically that those of us who love Halloween do it for fun and to let our hair down. We are not going to hell, we aren’t witches or devil-worshipers, nor are we necessarily pagan – I’m Catholic, as it happens.

We enjoy the chill in the air, brightly-lit pumpkins, the sense of the mysterious, and a good ghost story. Halloween provides a lovely vicarious thrill – we enjoy the feeling of danger without actually being in any.

My hubby and I have had some great Halloween parties, and we love it when guests get really creative with their characters and costumes. My favourite to date was when one of our buddies dressed up as the Hunchback of Notre Dame and spent 10 minutes moaning while he tried to open the bar fridge door – it was hilarious.

Halloween is a chance to step outside our ordinary lives, to be anyone or anything, to indulge in a little healthy spookiness and some shivers. I love decorating my house with gargoyles, pumpkins in all shapes and sizes, spider web table cloths, flickering candles – I have an entire Halloween village in my office that lives there all year round.

I can understand that some of the more extreme celebrations can be disturbing to some – I don’t like goriness and many of the more sleazy/suggestive costumes either, but everyone has different tastes and I can choose to avoid places and events that include them.

One of my former occasional co-workers was a bit distressed by a tombstone with a couple of mild skulls and the words “Happy Halloween” that I put on my desk. We had a friendly discussion about it, but what she told me was a bit disturbing: her religious background had raised her to believe that even looking at something like a Halloween skull would invite eternal damnation.

Fear is a powerful way to influence someone – it’s our most potent emotion, and organizations have used it for centuries to control people. You only have to look at most of the marketing in today’s media to see how fear is used to manipulate: are your teeth white enough, do you have bodily odour, are your shoes/clothing not cool enough, do you have incredibly bad bacteria contaminating every corner of your lives…

Many of our fears are self-imposed as well. Some are healthy fears – avoiding things are known to be harmful, like poison ivy – but I continually run into people who fear all kinds of nebulous things, like change, or stepping outside their comfort zone.

Our fears limit us. They put chains around us that can take over our lives. I felt awful for that co-worker, who essentially lives in in a prison of fear that the devil’s influence lurks around every corner waiting to trap her. Surely a strong sense of faith should preclude living in such fear. All of us should take the time to examine our fears and decide whether that’s the way we want to live, or if we can reason through them and break free.

To those who want to ruin Halloween for the rest of us, I say Boo Humbug!

Toxic office & school supplies

Why does everything in our culture turn into an extreme version of itself? A case in point is the current obsession with sterilizing and disinfecting every surface we touch. Marketers use fear, one of our most powerful emotions, to sell products — do you have bad breath/underarm stains/dry hair/not enough energy? Does your house smell? Are your windows spotty? Are your dishes spotty? Do you spend too much time pulling weeds?

The list of things we’re told we should be worried about is practically endless — no wonder everyone’s neurotic. But it’s the fear of contamination that’s really got everyone overreacting. The ads are sometimes hilarious — when’s the last time you smeared a chicken breast across your kitchen counter — and often make me shake my head.

Here’s the thing: how is anyone going to build up an immunity to microbes if they live in a sterile environment? I watched an interesting and enlightening television show quite a few years ago that focused on the polio epidemics which swept across from 1920 to the mid 1950s. Polio is a terrifying disease, but the interesting thing is that it wasn’t the poor unwashed people who contracted it — it was the wealthy families who wouldn’t let their children play in the dirt and were obsessed with cleanliness. The virus that causes polio has been around for centuries, and when kids played in the dirt they developed a natural resistance by constant exposure to small amounts. As soon as the middle and upper classes began to keep their children and their homes ultraclean, the natural immunity was lost. Read this article on the PBS website for more information.

When I was a kid in the 60s, children were back to romping around in the great outdoors for most of the day. We weren’t supposed to be in the house until supper time. We made mud pies out of real mud, and sometime ate a bit just because everything needed to be tasted at least once.

Now mothers are exhorted to sterilize every surface in the home, offices keep pump bottles of antibacterial wash on every desk, and now — god help us — even school and office supplies are being treated with antimicrobial compounds. I read this article from Rodale the other day about school supplies being coated in triclosan, an antibacterial compound that doesn’t just kill microbes, it enters the skin on contact. Governments are still looking into the long-term effects of being exposed to products like triclosan, but personally I feel that the fewer chemicals I absorb into my body the better. (And by the way, if you’re still a smoker, you should take a long, hard look at all the garbage you’re taking in every time you light one up.)

After reading the Rodale article, I didn’t have time to run out to the nearest office and school supply place to check the shelves, but a routine search through a catalogue for a new stapler brought me up short: the entire Swingline line of staplers, for example, appears to be treated with an “antimicrobial” agent.

This is a frightening trend. If the last craze for sterilizing everything we came into contact with resulted in a horrifying polio epidemic for over three decades, what will happen this time?