It’s been a tough year. Not just for the students here at UCSB, but for the entire world. There are millions of people fleeing from a country torn apart by violence; Paris, Beirut and countries all across Africa and the Middle East have been the victims of terrorist attacks; there have been more mass shootings in the U.S. than there have been days; the list goes on and on.

With so much anger, hatred and violence in the world, it’s so easy to fall into fear. But that’s exactly the point of terrorism … to make us feel scared. Because, when humans feel scared, it’s a scientifically proven fact that creativity, empathy, generosity, intelligence, performance and pretty much all higher functioning decreases. We become animals of instinct and reaction, rather than beings of intellect and creation.

Lorenzo Basilio/Daily Nexus

Lorenzo Basilio/Daily Nexus

It’s no revelation that everybody is affected by terrorism, whether it’s through the pain of losing a loved one, pain of being scared of attacks on ourselves or pain for humanity as a whole, we all feel it. But the problem is that we have begun to let that dictate how we feel everything. Everyday function is marred by the possibility of danger, so we keep our heads low and try to make sure we have enough just in case, trusting that everybody else will do the same — it’s not our responsibility how anyone else lives, right?

Wrong. Humans are intrinsically wired for empathy, that’s why we have these things called mirror neurons. If we watch something happen, our brains light up as if it were happening to us. Our nature is to survive, yes, but our nature is also to care.

I’m not trying to say that we all should walk around feeling guilty that we’re not sponsoring a refugee or anything like that — quite the opposite. I’m saying that everybody can help just by fighting back against the terror that is slowly creeping into our brains. It’s as easy as a smile. Next time you’re walking or biking around, keep a smile on your face. You’d be amazed at how many people smile back.

Whenever you feel that inclination toward withdrawing into your shell, remember that is not your nature. That is somebody trying to manipulate you into silence, into complacency, into fear. You don’t have to accept the negativity that is being fed to you every day.

I don’t mean to say you should ignore it at all; you need to see it, to observe it, to understand it. You need to process it in your own way. But then you learn and move on. You need to remember that you can play for one of two teams: fear or peace.

If you feed your fear, what do you think you’ll notice everyday? Things that make you scared. You’ll live under a layer of doubt, uncertainty and selfishness. You’ll make choices based on what is best to annul your current fear without thinking about the long-term. That’s not an opinion, that’s science. Fear demands short-term rewards.

So a piece of advice for this holiday season, and forever, is to choose to be confident, to be brave, to be happy for all the small victories and gifts in your life, to be peaceful and welcoming when you can and to handle yourself like you matter, because you do. You never know how far a smile can go. The more you look for the positive things in this world, the more you’ll find them and, chances are, the more you’ll create them.

If nothing else, just remember that today you are not a victim, and that means you have the power to change things. You don’t need to be a Senator to enact change. Nothing ever stays the same. So ask yourself, are you making the world a happier or darker place today? You have the power to do both, and whether you like it or not, you’re doing one of them.

Go out and enjoy this holiday season, even with all the tragedy. Enjoy it extra just to show the world that you won’t listen when they try to spook you. Enjoy it extra just because you can. Enjoy it extra because your happiness might just make all the difference.

You matter, and even if you die tomorrow, you are creating your legacy every day with everything you say and everything you do. Don’t let that scare you, though. You can handle it.

Happy Holidays from Emile Nelson

A version of this story appeared on p. 6 of the Thursday, Dec. 3 edition of the Daily Nexus.