Josh Freed: Stop sweating the big stuff

Editors note: The author of this piece, Josh Freed, writes a regular humorous column for the Montreal Gazette. He is one of my perennial favourites because important messages are often embedded in the humour.  The following is a splendid example of a message about risk taking that i urge you to share with colleagues.  We desperately need to put things in perspective and the media often makes it extremely difficult to do so.  This is an excellent exception to that rule. Mr. Freed kindly agreed to allow me to reproduce this column in its entirety.

MONTREAL – Last summer I was on a beach swimming in the deep blue sea when I suddenly found myself having paranoid thoughts — about sharks. I started peering down warily to see if anything hungry-looking lurked below — mainly because I saw the film Jaws 35 years ago which ruined swimming for millions.

I knew it was a ridiculous concern. There were only six shark deaths last year in the entire world, so my chances were way better of being hit by lightning, even on that perfectly sunny day.

It was similar to how I sometimes get nervous in planes during heavy turbulence, although I know big airplanes almost never crash anymore. But I never worry when I’m driving my car — although it’s by far the most dangerous thing I ever do.

When it comes to risk we usually worry about the wrong things. That’s why you see obese people on the beach slathering on tons of sunblock, while smoking. Or meet parents who worry about flu-shot side effects, or food preservatives in peanut butter, while letting their kids ski without helmets — which reduce head accidents by half.

We humans are still creatures of instinct who make most decisions based on our feelings, not on facts and figures.

A doctor friend who spent decades working in Montreal emergency wards says healthy people often worry a lot about their blood pressure and cholesterol though they rarely think about the one major risk they face in winter, especially here in Quebec: falling.

During old-fashioned winters like this, he says, Quebec emergency wards are “the closet thing North America has to a war zone.” They’re crowded with patients who’ve broken bones and many will die, especially older people.

But few of us worry about falling. We’re too busy worrying about that new mole on our arm we think might be cancer, or the headache that might mean we have a brain tumor — though it’s very rare a headache means a tumor. All it means is, take a Tylenol.

As Woody Allen recently said in a story on hypochondria, he once went to an emergency ward worried about a strange mark on his neck, but the doctor told him: “Relax — your hickey is benign.”

If you look at U.S. accidental death rates, falling is near the top of the list — just slightly behind car accidents. People get killed falling down stairs and off ladders, off ledges, balconies, swings, mountain trails, ski jumps — and especially falling in the shower.

In a recent New York Times piece, well-known scientist Jared Diamond said falling in the shower is one of the biggest dangers we face — because we shower almost every day of our lives, so the small daily risk gradually adds up to be a real threat.

But we don’t usually get anxious in showers. We save our anxiety for worrying about things like Mad Cowburgers in restaurants, or gluten in our cereal.

Diamond often works in New Guinea and he says natives there never sleep under a tree . They figure, logically, that if they do it often enough, one will eventually fall down on them.

But we North Americans usually decide what’s dangerous more instinctively — through news media scare-of-the-day headlines. Dramatic rare events often make headlines and stick in our minds, like shark attacks and occasional plane crashes (but not shower tumbles).

We also worry about all kinds of unlikely-to-happen scary things — like West Nile disease, Mayan Doomsday, passing asteroids hitting Earth, or getting Bisphenol A poisoning from our 3-week-old water bottles. “Honey, don’t re-use that plastic sports bottle again, it’s dangerous! Now let’s hurry up — we have to drive to skydiving.”

It’s hard to get your risks right. Statistically, the biggest dangers to kids in North America are car accidents — or homicides by someone they know. But surveys show parents worry most about kidnappings, snipers and terrorists — because that’s what we hear about.

In fact, terrorism casualties are very tiny in North America, apart from 9/11. Yet we spend billions in security and billions of hours in airport lineups, stripping off belts and shoes and donating a million oversize toothpastes to security cops — all to protect ourselves from terrorism, one of the rarest, most unlikely ways we can get killed.

Many think that if we spent a bit of that security money to ensure every staircase was safely built, with good handrails, we’d save way more lives.

The bottom line is: Stop worrying about terrorists, turbulence, vaccinations, asteroids, cellphone rays and gluten. Just be careful in the shower, pay attention going down steps, drive safely and don’t sleep under trees — and with luck you should live a long life, if you don’t get eaten by a shark.

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