If we were of sunnier disposition, or lived in a bucolic suburb, or maybe if we were just rich we wouldn't worry the way we do. But the truth is, everybody's scared of something. We found ourselves talking about that in regard to Halloween (and in regard to the recently concluded election), and the fears poured out. We started talking to others and struck a chord with almost every call or e-mail. Some of these fears were mundane and some were sort of funny (if you're not the one afraid, that is). Some seemed pretty personal and some are probably shared by many, at some level. We were so fascinated by the topic that we figured you might be, too.

Random violence as it exists today scares me. I grew up in rough, violent neighborhoods. You couldn't expect to be safe or that others could keep you safe. You took matters into your own hands as much as you could. You hit the floor when you heard gunfire outside and took special note of who was around you at all times. Violence was expected; hey, you mentally prepare to get hurt or worse if you live in a war zone and it's not a shock if you do.

The violence that occurs now happens in places we consider safe, from people that seem ordinary. Society as a whole is the battlefield. Anyone could be a sniper or a suicide bomber on the attack. I fear showing up in the path of some normal-looking psycho and being selected as a suitable victim for some criminal act — and even more frightening is that it will probably happen in a place I'm familiar with.

The idea that because of some innocent chain of events — because you parked on a different level in the garage than you usually do and had to wait longer for the elevator, or you stopped at the store on the way home, or you decided to go someplace alone, or you stopped to give someone directions — because of things like that you could be harmed or killed chills my blood. No matter where you are, you aren't safe. If Amish kids aren't safe in a one-room schoolhouse in the Pennsylvania countryside, what should the rest of us expect? It is the worst sort of Russian roulette.

A movie like Crash, in which people that any of us might come in contact with find themselves unwilling and/or unable to stop committing violent acts as they go about their lives, scares me much more than a Saw or Friday the 13th or Psycho ever could. I'm not likely going to skip through the woods where a knife-wielding freak happens to be hanging out, looking to kill some time and some people. But very likely I'll be in the bank when some sick soul decides this is the place and time where he needs to let the world know he was here in the most heinous and frightening way imaginable.

— Petula Caesar

My own anxiety closet swings opens at least every month or so, because the thing of which I am most afraid is eternally just a few days and a couple of degrees away from staring me in the face or hovering inches from my waiting mouth.

My friends, I speak of mold. Pasty, green-blue patches of it. Entropic gray sinkholes of it. Furry, untamed tracts of it. Festering. Growing. Upon each encounter with rotten food — ancient leftovers, forgotten deli meat, past-its-prime cheese and so on — I'm reduced to a blubbering, cornered teenager in a Nightmare on Elm Street movie, hands shaking, lips quivering, gibbering and crying out.

It all began in the fourth grade, when I was assigned a locker next to that of the arrogant scion of a now somewhat-prominent family. Every day, he brought a brown-bag lunch to school. Every day, he ordered a slice of the school's pizza instead. Every day, the rancid stench of rotting sandwiches grew as uneaten lunches piled up inside like identical corpses in a shallow mass grave. Every day, more fruit flies appeared to pay their respects. This continued until I couldn't take it anymore and turned tattler. The most traumatizing part of this experience occurred as the offender opened his locker to clean it out: sacks upon sacks jammed into the narrow space, soaked through with moss-green ooze fed upon by more insects than I'd ever seen in one place at one time. Ghastly, the smell lingered in the hallway for weeks.

From that point forward, my personal terror level struck Orange Alert at the slightest hint of mold. A speck of the stuff on bread or bagels and it was breathlessly off to the trash — heaven help anyone who got in my way. Milk even an hour past the expiration date was hastily and unceremoniously pitched. One morning, as my father made pancakes for me, I stumbled upon an ancient bottle of Log Cabin someone had left open and proceeded to freak the fuck out. The brown, sweet, gooey syrup had been supplanted by what appeared to be curdled, mint-colored ectoplasm.

Until recently my wife was a frequent baker of cakes, liberally slathering them with icing. While I love cake, my anticipation of her latest steaming pan of Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker was tempered by the sobering foreknowledge that we weren't going to be able to eat all of it in time. We would each have a few pieces after the cake's first days of existence. A week or two later it would fall to me to dispose of it — to pry the lid away, to confront strands of thick, grass-like mold waving imperceptibly up at me, to whimper, to back slowly away, to feel fear wash through my veins like a tidal wave.

— Raymond Cummings

I'm not sure I can come up with any single fear. This may be because I'm scared of everything uniformly, and I'm finding it impossible to separate one fear out of the tangle, or that I'm scared of revealing anything personal about myself and can't admit to any possibly revealing fears.

Actually, I often think that fear is the only thing that motivates me to get off the sofa; it's also what makes me like being on the sofa. I guess being scared of getting caught doing something wrong is at the root of all of my fears. It, in fact, has probably become so strong that it has become being scared of getting caught doing something regardless of whether it's wrong or not. I'm pretty sure the only reason I get anything done is because I'm scared of getting caught doing nothing.

— Gary Kachadourian

I'm afraid illiteracy has become normal. When people can't read, they form their view of the world from talk radio and television, which tell them explicitly what to think, and mock — or ban — those who question. The massacres in Rwanda were directed by radio announcers stoking hatred. Rwanda's literacy rate is said to be 60 percent. U.S. authorities don't track literacy with precision or honesty. A rate of 97 percent was claimed as of 1979 — apparently the last serious survey. These days official sources often give it as 99 percent — plainly bogus. And many who can read, don't. The New York Times foreshadowed the primacy of propaganda — as opposed to informed debate and logical argument — in a spring 2005 article headlined "Is a cinema studies degree the new MBA?" Those who can't read can't think, and those who can't think become tools of those who can — for good or evil.

— Edward Ericson Jr.

I'm afraid George W. Bush is going to start another world war; the dude with the finger on the button is crazy and he's not making any friends out there. Venezuela hates us, North Korea has the bomb and the Middle East has only gotten worse with us being there. The guy's idea of diplomacy is either invading or ignoring, and he's too stubborn to even back down, much less admit he's wrong. Plus Bush is a guy who believes all that evangelical crap about "the end times." It's almost like he's trying to bring about the end of the world.

— Matt Ehrhardt

I'm scared of falling for a guy I meet on the Internet. Maybe I've seen too many made-for-TV movies, but when the guy seems too perfect it scares me. Especially guys on the Internet who I meet. I mean, there are all sorts of nuts out there in the world. Every week Dateline catches, like, five predators from the Internet. I'm starting to think that the guys online are all damaged. When they're too good to be true, I start to think that he could be married and just toying with me to see if he's still "got it." Or worse, he could be gay and using me as a cover and I end up catching some disease.

— Alethea Hill

I have a fear of being single forever. Mom was married at early-30-something and separated less than 10 years after the marriage. Dad passed away when I was 8, and I've never seen her with another man. That would be OK in a perfect world, but in this one everyone has needs, and some of those needs should be filled by the opposite sex or, in this day and age, someone who is viewed as a companion. I don't want to be alone for the rest of my life. Right now, I am not lonely and I accept and relish the fact that I am just alone. Right now, I have plenty of takers at my doorstep, but the one has either crossed my threshold too quickly and no longer wants, or he's not shown his face yet. The thought of waking in a lonely bed after my son is old, after either my first round of plastic surgery or sagging parts … I think I will be devastated. I don't want to be alone for life, and I am afraid to be. Any honest woman will tell you the same.

— Joy Carter

One of my biggest fears is failure. I've always been the student that got the best grades, the kid with nice clothes. I had a car at 16, always loved to work, always had a steady boyfriend. All that changed the year I stepped onto a college campus. I was no longer the only kid with good grades, nice clothes, a nice car, a job or a boyfriend — I was just considered average. That made me withdraw, not only from school but from a lot of activities that I used to enjoy. I allowed myself to give up. Then those clothes and car were all I had, and I realized how much they didn't mean to me. And now, eight years later, I'm divorced, I crashed my car, I'm not in school and I'm in a job that I know I'm too smart for. Sometimes my life feels as though I'm in a dark tunnel and I've run out of batteries for my flashlight.

I continue to pray and be grateful for what I do have, and soon I'm sure those batteries will turn up and I'll see a light at the end of that tunnel. My daughter deserves the best mommy ever, and I plan to give her that.

— Patrice Squire

In 1968, Eldridge Cleaver, black nationalist-turned-aspiring right-wing politician, wrote in his seminal essay collection, Soul on Ice, that the estimable James Baldwin maintained a "shameful, fanatical, fawning, sycophantic love of the whites." Similar grenades had been hurled toward Baldwin before, particularly with the growing rise of Black Power sentiments, and Baldwin's unofficial role as leading literary spokesman of the African-American community was waning.

Such pontifications were par for the course during the '60s and '70s — one was either "down" with one's race (the black race) or one was not. Not much has changed all these years later. Certainly, the language is less vitriolic and discussion of race and racism is all but completely muted, but the practice of castigating an African-American for his or her perceived lack of "blackness" — or rather, his or her abundance of "whiteness" — continues. In fact, it is thriving. Harriet Beecher Stowe gave the American-English vernacular "Uncle Tom" and Nabisco birthed the Oreo, and the two terms are brandished with reckless abandon. (There should be no need to define the term Uncle Tom, but for the uninitiated, "Oreo" is a pejorative term used to describe a black person who "acts white," as Oreo cookies are black externally and white inside.)

These words are meant to identify those with a confused sense of racial identity, as if to suggest that racial and ethnic identity were defined and immutable. Surely, there are African-Americans who ingratiate themselves with whites, suppressing black progress in an overtly opportunistic or self-loathing manner. But disparaging terms such as these can have lasting effects upon one's psyche. I should know; for as long as I can remember, I have been thought just not black enough or too white.

The irony here is that I take my responsibility as an African-American writer seriously and attempt to give voice to issues and causes that would otherwise remain voiceless. Of course, my political and social convictions are secondary to the composition of my friends, style of dress and manner of speaking. I am often the lone African-American at a party, and whites generally perceive me as nonthreatening. I might even be fit to date their daughter, niece or neighbor! Other blacks see this and come to the same conclusion: They see just another white-black boy, an Oreo, an Uncle Tom.

This perception haunts me daily. Remarks suggesting that I am not authentically black bore into the back of my skull. The remarks are often made in jest, but my skin tightens, my blood boils. It takes much effort not to lash out at the faux-comedians.

Such abated anger grows out of my fear that I will be acknowledged less for my concern for social justice (particularly racial and socioeconomic parity) and my production as a writer, and more for the skin color of my friends and acquaintances. I ask myself, can a self-proclaimed black writer have so many white friends? I fear losing credibility within the black community.

However, my greatest fear is that we will never progress beyond our own antiquated conceptions of racial identity. I fear that young African-Americans will continue to negotiate their individuality to appease society at large. I fear that they will have to earn their blackness by meeting ambiguous cultural expectations. I fear the denigration they will face for not doing so.

— R. Darryl Foxworth

I fear corporate America. It's something that I absolutely detest and abhor, and I fear that it will eventually be the demise of our great country. Especially corporate America co-opting the subculture, if you will, where it's using the language and ideas and concepts of the rebellion to sell its products. Because of its quest at any cost for money and sustaining its ideals and morality, my fear is that we're looking at a homogenized society where everything that is unique will eventually be bought and controlled by corporations.

— Michael Bowen

As an economist, my greatest fear is that the nation will lose what makes it special and what makes it strong, which is its middle class. And not just the fact that we have a middle class, but that it's a prosperous, optimistic middle class that has served to create a feeling that this nation can accomplish whatever it sets out to accomplish.

We continue to see strains on America's middle class, and largely for reasons that are well-known. I think everyone is familiar with the ongoing loss of industrial jobs. The problem for many middle-income households is that there really has been no replacement for the types of jobs that have been lost in the manufacturing sector. Construction has provided some of those types of jobs, distribution has provided some of those types of jobs, but no industry has provided the type of high-wage, benefit-rich jobs that manufacturing used to generate in high numbers. When you supplement that concern with globalization and offshoring of American jobs, not just in manufacturing but also the service industry, we're beginning to see some real strain on the middle class.

The end result is that you have an increasingly bifurcated society, a society separated into haves and have-nots, and that's a society that's not going to function as well on many different levels. It's not going to be as economically vibrant, because the middle class has historically driven so much consumption activity in this nation, and therefore has had a disproportionate effect on allowing this economy to expand. Without that middle-income strength, retailers, manufacturers and wholesalers of all types — furniture, electronics, you name it — will simply not do as well going forward. Certainly not homebuilders. So that's one fear.

Another fear is that this is becoming increasingly reflected in our extremist politics, which are increasingly affected by the extremes of the respective political parties. Religious conservatives and right-wingers are influencing the Republican Party. On the left, it's the desire for all types of anti-corporate, anti-business initiatives, whether it's the Wal-Mart bill or just an instant dislike or distaste for mergers and acquisition activities. Sort of a knee-jerk reaction to corporate events — if a corporation wants it, it must be bad. Well, that's not necessarily true. It may be true, but it may not be true also. Instead of having politics that are centrist-oriented where we're able to get along, where we're able to work things out, where we're able to keep government functioning, we often meet with political gridlock.

At the end of the day, you get dysfunctional government, you get an economy that's not as strong. Well, that's politics and economics. That's a large piece of the American story. We have to do something to preserve that middle-income job base, and it's increasingly difficult to do that.

— Anirban Basu

I'm afraid of the world we're making for our kids — for my kids. I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War, and near-instant mutually assured annihilation was something I thought about all the time, but in a way I worry more about what my two young sons might face. I've been hearing the warnings all my life — species shrinking, atmosphere changing, oil reserves dropping — and now the signs are there in the press accounts and scientific studies. We're staring down a world where most wild animals might be a quaint memory, where our energy system could collapse and take our society with it, where our reckless consumption leaves us with an environment that's flooded and poisoned, even if we start pulling hard against that fate tomorrow. And then there's the world of people and nations, which is ever more polarized and on-edge.

I fully realize that I might be worrying over nothing; I wish I could stop, believe me. But if even a fraction of the doomier prophecies prove out, my children will face a life very different from the relative ease and promise I have enjoyed. Everybody's children will. My younger son is just a baby, but I try to make sure my older son understands what a wonderful place the world can be, and how lucky he is. I sometimes lie awake at night hoping his luck holds out.

— Lee Gardner

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