Tag Archives: fear

A Risk Worth Taking?

code orange, fountain, heat, silver spring

From the Washington Post’s Hot Summer Days in Washington

Delighted children jumped up and down on the swirled tile, waiting for the spray to burst forth.  When the fountain erupted, the children squealed and ran directly into the waterfall, lifting their faces in unabashed joy.

I stepped back, avoiding the spray, and watched, smiling at one little girl who started forward but then turned to put her face into her mother’s chest, clinging to safety just outside the circle of water.

She reminded me of myself.  All my life my first instinct has been to stand back timidly.  I didn’t learn to swim until the summer after eighth grade, and though I love the water, I only venture into the most docile waves.  Each time my family vacations on the Outer Banks, I sit in a chair at the edge of the water with a book while our adult children run headlong into the surf, waving their boogie boards in a greeting to the coming waves.

In high school, while all my friends enrolled in Drivers’ Ed, I avoided the class, terrified that I’d die in a crash as one of my cousins had.  I didn’t get my license until I was 22 and needed to drive to my first job.  In college, I took a class in golf, and after the class, I never golfed again after getting my only B.

As a young adult I briefly overcame my fear of danger and failure.  My boyfriend and his sister coaxed me to waterski, and though I failed over and over again, I’ll never forget the exhilaration of knowing, in that split-second before the rope pulled taut, that I was going to be gliding across the water because I had finally given in to the boat and allowed it to pull me to a standing position.

My friends also convinced me I should go white-water rafting, and we made an annual trip down the New River for a few years.  And even then, when we stopped at a cliff of rock and everyone took turns jumping twenty feet into the water below, I sat on a grassy knoll and watched, never taking that plunge.

After leaving West Virginia when I was 30, I didn’t raft again for another twenty years, when part of the festivities for my stepson’s wedding in Lake Tahoe included a lazy trip down the Truckee River.  The water was so placid that, for once, it didn’t even occur to me to be fearful or hesitant.  But near the end of the excursion I was thrown from the raft into the only rapids on a two-hour trip.  Instead of tucking my body and riding out the waves as I’d been taught to do twenty years before, I panicked and clung to the hands of my friends and family until they pulled me back into the raft.  For a week my body was a panorama of black, purple, and green.  And though there’s humor now in the memory, I can’t quite rid myself of the fear that I could have drowned in rushing water that didn’t come higher than my waistline.

I’ve long since accepted that being a risk-taker is not an inherent part of my character.  This characteristic isn’t limited to physical challenges—it extends into every area of my life.  But I’ve learned that being aware of this trait is the first step to overcoming it when the risk is worth taking.  My church once asked me to serve as an Elder, to help make decisions about the mission of the church.  But the nominating committee asked at a time when the denomination was in turmoil over the issue of the ordination of gays and lesbians.  One congregation in the area had split over the issue, and a number of congregations in the country threatened to leave the denomination.  I feared I had neither the wisdom nor the virtue to serve.  But I did it because I knew it was important to be a voice for a gay pastor who had once taken very good care of my family.

I know I’m not the only one who hesitates to take risks.  But the people we hear most loudly—the people who get the most media play—tend to be those at the other extreme.  I’ve been reflecting about this a lot after hearing Sarah Palin’s comments at the Faith and Freedom Conference last week and reading Kathryn Parker’s column in the Washington Post.  While I’m sure Palin must have moments of personal insecurity, she exudes confidence to the point of recklessness.  And while Parker, also a conservative, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010, she told a story of self-doubt in her next column after winning—a story in which she credited a teacher for giving her the confidence to become a writer.

Parker’s most recent column had over 3000 comments within one day of being critical of Sarah Palin, many of them asking her who she was to bash someone who had actually done something.  When I responded that shehad done something, in fact, had won a Pulitzer, her fans attacked the Pulitzer and me.  Soon the comments bore no relation to the content of Parker’s column.  The posts quickly spiraled into the muck, and most rational readers bowed out.

I logged off, disgusted with how the loudest commenters spew venom that they would never voice if they couldn’t hide behind the anonymity of the Internet.  And in that next moment I realized that we hesitant people—we who stand back because of insecurity and danger—can’t allow the loudest and least rational to control the story of the people in this nation.

And I thought of those children at the fountain again.  What happens when little bullies push others out of the way to get the best spot under the falling water in the heat of the day?  Adults—either the bullies’ own parents or others—wade into the water, heedless of getting soaked, and pull those children out until they agree to behave with civility.

So tell me a story.  When have you waded into a geyser that made it worth getting drenched?

Afraid of the Madness?

Crab

Watching the sand crabs at the beach, I sometimes think I understand exactly how they must feel.  They creep tentatively out of their holes in the sand, their big bug-eyes darting this way and that, looking for danger in the world.  They do their work hurriedly, rushing back into their holes at the first sign of menacing humans who step threateningly close.

Held at gunpoint at the age of five, I know what it is to feel vulnerable. When I tell my friends in the Maryland suburbs about my early childhood, the stories sometimes leave them speechless, unable to comprehend being so close to such danger.

But as large as those scenes loom in my memory, they don’t frighten me nearly so much as the reports of random violence that fill the news on any given day.  When I talk with the many teenagers and young adults I know, I’m concerned about the long-term effects of a 24-hour news cycle that plays and replays scenes of violence.  And in the Washington area, where we hear endless reports of citizens who are arming themselves because they distrust our government, the possibilities for tragedy are omnipresent and oppressive.

While my exposure to violence as a child was not commonplace, even the most vigilant parent today finds it difficult to protect little ones from learning about evil early in life.  Anyone born after CNN became the first 24-hour news network in 1980 has never known anything except news all day, every day.  Think about that.  The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.  The massacre at Columbine in 1999.  The anthrax attacks of 2001.  The carnage in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania on 9/11.  The Virginia Tech shootings in 2007.  The Aurora theater shootings and the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings in 2012.

One need only look at the dates to see that these tragedies are happening with greater frequency and more massive devastation.  They are happening on a greater scale than in many war-torn third world countries.  Why is this happening in a country that has the world’s greatest share of wealth and creature comforts?

And according to the CDC, the number of people who were prescribed anti-anxiety medications has more than doubled since the mid-1980s.  And this statistic does not include prescriptions for anti-depressants or more serious psychotic drugs.  Nor does it include the number of people who self-medicate with alcohol or illegal substances.

What can we do to combat the madness and anger in such a world?  The problem is complex, and our needs are overwhelming.  But it would be a start to have leaders who don’t add to the vitriol and who can work together to tackle the problems that face us.  And it would help if the news networks would balance out reports of evil with stories of human kindness.

Yes, it would be safer to mimic that little sand crab, frightened of contact with the world.  But then we would miss the beautiful sunrises over the ocean, the play of the waves as they change each day, the feel of a loved one’s hand in our own as our toes make parallel prints in the sand.

In the past two weeks, since one of my best friends lost her husband, I’ve been reminded of what’s best about being human.  Hundreds of mourners overflowed the church in honor of a man who devoted his life to helping struggling students that others had forgotten.  Close friends and acquaintances lifted up my friend and her son, crying with them, laughing with them, feeding them, holding them.  And my friend learned that she was stronger and more gracious than she had any notion she could be.  In the tragedy of my friend’s sudden death, I learned yet again that even when we’re surrounded by danger and sorrow, maybe especially when we can’t flee from danger and sorrow, it’s worth coming out of hiding.

So tell me a story of what’s good about our world, about us.

Nothing to Fear?

First-year Teacher

“I don’t think there’s going to be a world in ten years,” my student said mournfully, tears welling up in her eyes.

“Yeah, me neither,” said the boy sitting in the next row, slumping a little lower than his usual slump.

My English classes had just finished reading Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, a novel published in 1957, twelve years after the United States bombed Japan to hasten the end of World War II.  Two years later, Gregory Peck starred in the movie version of the novel as the handsome American captain who had brought his nuclear submarine to the coast of Australia as the radiation fallout slowly drifted south.  In the narrative, no life remains north of the earth’s equator, and the inhabitants of Australia know that their days are numbered.

In the real world—the one my students and I inhabited in the early 1980s—humanity lived in terror, and the arms race dominated the evening news and the front pages of newspapers.  After that first class discussion, I grew to recognize the fear in some students’ eyes and the resignation in others’.  I asked my students whether they shared Shute’s view of our ultimate demise.  Few of them believed that they would grow up and fall in love—or even live long enough to go to college and pursue their dreams. I assured them our leaders would find a way to harness our power to destroy, though I was 25 years old and shared their anxiety.

Many of those students wrote arguments about banning all nuclear weapons and felt angry when their arguments, along with a growing movement in our country, fell on deaf ears.  Those students would now be almost 50, and I wonder if they ever think about those days, that novel, our discussions.  You wouldn’t find Shute’s book in most high school book rooms now.  The science is inaccurate and the story somewhat maudlin.

A nuclear weapon in the hands of our own military seemed far less dangerous in the wake of September 11, two weeks after we offered a temporary home to a 25-year-old teacher who had moved to Maryland from a small town in Illinois.  Our daughter was a sophomore in high school, the same age as the students I taught when I was 25.  By 9/11, I had been teaching almost 25 years, and I had never seen anything like the chaos of that day, when students, many of whose parents worked in D.C., found out that the Pentagon had been attacked.  There weren’t enough phones in the building for all the hysterical students and staff to make phone calls to their loved ones—so many that we couldn’t even get calls out on the jammed lines.

Just as we were learning to breathe again the following fall, October 2002, we suffered terror of another kind when, for three weeks, a sniper randomly attacked innocent people going about their lives.  Most of the attacks happened within five miles of our home.  My mother had been visiting from Richmond, and the last attack occurred the day my husband drove my mother to Fredericksburg to meet my brother from Richmond—at the very exit the sniper chose.  They sat for hours in the snarled traffic on Interstate 95 while, at home, we waited for news.

That young teacher, who had her own apartment by then, often stayed at our home during the crises of her first years in Maryland, and she wondered whether she had been wise to abandon the safety of a small town in the Midwest for the dangers of our nation’s capital.  My fears—my students’ fears—of nuclear fall-out seemed almost laughable when I looked into that young teacher’s eyes, into my daughter’s eyes, and tried to breathe deeply enough to assuage their alarm that the world had gone mad.

Today, the arms race we started is rarely fodder for the 24-hour news cycle.  Occasionally we read an article about the danger of a rogue nation, like Iran, being close to having a nuclear weapon, but, for the most part, our demons are different.  Somehow, our leaders have managed to get a grip on the fear that plagued us when I was a young adult.  We still have a nuclear arsenal, and while we worry about rogue nations, we haven’t let that fear loom so large that we are paralyzed by it.

And though September 11 has shaped our character as a nation, we have even found ways to address our vulnerability to make it less likely, though never impossible, for such an attack to happen again.

Yet, still, we fear.  We fear the next mentally ill man who will storm into a school and kill our children.  We fear radical extremists who are willing to strap bombs to their own bodies and become human explosives, decimating everyone in the crowded areas they choose for what they consider a glorious death.  We fear even our own people, citizens who feel they need assault rifles to protect themselves.

We.  I.  I am afraid, and I can scarcely breathe when I think of all the unspeakable danger that could take my children from me in butterfly’s breath.  The world is a scary place.  But the only way we can move beyond our paralyzing fear is to tackle our challenges together.  And maybe, just maybe, thirty years from now one of today’s 25-year-old teachers will be able to say, Oh, yes, I remember when my students were afraid of that.

Tell me your stories of fears that have never materialized and the joy that comes from moving beyond them.