I don't understand the impulse toward hysteria. There's also nothing much to like about the phenomenon. Starting with the word itself, which derives from the Greek hystera, meaning uterus, "hysteria" was originally defined as a neurotic condition peculiar to women. With those misogynistic roots, one would think the term had nowhere to go but up.
But no. Instead, hysteria became a social phenomenon, nowhere more evident than in this recent ridiculous mania over swine flu. As I understand it, statistically speaking your chances of contracting and dying from swine flu are significantly less than your chances of choking to death on a ballpoint pen (which 100 people do every year). They are a tiny fraction of your chances of dying in a car accident (43,000 annually) or from assorted gun violence (17,000). "Normal" flu kills around 36,000 people every year. And these numbers are just for the U.S. The swine flu hysteria is even sillier when considered in terms of global numbers.
So what prompted it? Why were/are people with about as much risk of contracting swine flu as someone living alone on a mountaintop all hysterical at the thought of going to school or getting on a plane or eating in a Mexican restaurant? Why were/are they flocking to already overcrowded ERs because they imagine their tummies hurt?
I've wondered about this personalization of peril before. I was doing some work for a company in Los Angeles right after 9/11. For a couple weeks after those horrific events, a few of the people in the LA office - none of whom had been personally affected by the attacks - were "too traumatized to come to work." Was this their way of empathizing? Of honoring the dead? Or was it an exploitation, however unconscious, of someone else's loss? I hate to think it was anything other than empathy - how dishonorable to attempt to make events like those of 9/11 about oneself!
Why join in the hysteria over something that, if you weren't hysterical, you would plainly see poses no imminent threat to you? Does feeling in peril make people feel important? Or maybe it's the opposite; maybe it makes people feel like they belong, like they're part of the community.
If so, too bad the hysterical community in question is such a silly, self-centered and wasteful one. If we could inject all the energy behind the swine flu hysteria into a community bent on improving healthcare for the poor - or, for that matter eradicating gun violence or fatal car accidents - we'd actually accomplish something important and lasting. Not to mention communal.